One of life’s great pleasures is definitely chocolate! I am very excited by the recent successes of the “Valley of Chocolate” in Tuscany. The area between Pisa and Prato (near Florence) has developed into THE place where great artisanal chocolate is produced.
Many people are already familiar with Amedei chocolate www.amedei.com. For the third year in a row, this chocolate maker in Pontedera has won the Golden Bean award for “the best bean to bar chocolate in the world” from the London Academy of chocolate. Started by brother and sister Alessio and Cecilia Tessieri in 1990, Amedei produces the highest quality chocolate using the best cocoa beans from Central and South America. Their products include Amedei Porcelana Single Origin Dark Chocolate – 70% Cocoa, an ultra luxury chocolate. Amedei is also known for their concerns for carefully selecting the farms and farmers they work with and campaigning for fair treatment and living conditions for them and their workers.
Other famous chocolate makers in this area are Federico Salza of Pisa http://www.salza.it, Simone de Castro of Montopoli, Adrea Slitti of Monsummano Terme http://www.slitti.it, Corsini of Pistoia, Cioccolato &C of Massa e Cozzile in Pistoia, Caffe Pasticceria Rivoire in Florence (their hot chocolate is so legendary that I even ordered it on the hottest days of summer), Paul de Bondt from Pisa, Luca Mannori http://www.mannoriespace.it the patisserie champion creator of the “Seventh Veil Cake” (composed of 7 different kinds of chocolate) and Roberto Catanari, the originator of the entire ‘chocolate movement.’
The goal is for Tuscany to become known for the quality and origins of their handmade, high quality chocolate production in the same way as they are known for the production of art, wine and for their landscapes of unparalleled beauty.
None of this is truly surprising as Tuscany’s history with chocolate goes back centuries. Christopher Columbus was not impressed with the chocolate he sampled. Cortes was told chocolate was an aphrodisiac and brought it back to Europe. Chocolate remained “Spanish” until a Florentine traveler Antonio Carletti described the process of making chocolate to the Duke of Tuscany in the 17th century. Chocolate quickly radiated out from Florence to the other major cities in Italy.
Are you ‘singing in tune’ with life? I’ve written before about the importance of paying attention to each detail of a process. We used the freshest of eggs as an example of detail.
Tuscans use this approach to life in general, paying attention to each aspect or each moment along the way of any process. It is with each inspired brush stroke that Leonardo painted his masterpieces and with each perfect note that Puccini constructed his melodious operas.
In fact, music can be used as an analogy to many ways in which Tuscans approach life; paying attention to each single note, not going “off-key” or “out-of-tune…”
I was recently reminded of the “off-key” aspect in a conversation I had near Lucca with Maria a.k.a. “The Pasta Lady” at the villa Maionchi estate. Maria and her sister-in-law Alba take 100 of only the freshest, newly-laid eggs each morning to make pasta by hand for the Villa Maionchi restaurant. They also make those amazing vegetable soups (with bread or farro) found only in Lucca.
I have tried to replicate the Lucca soups by using the classic recipes. Soups made anywhere else never taste quite like those in Lucca. The reason for this is that the Lucchesi (people from Lucca) are famous for the use of Erbi (wild greens) found in the surrounding areas of Lucca and in the Garfagnana region. There are wild asparagus, tomatoes, lettuces, bitter greens, etc.
Maria attended classes in Lucca at a cooking school dedicated to these Erbi. She shared with me that there are more than 100 varieties of Erbi and that it takes much studying and field experience to learn them all. I found this interesting because, until now, the mothers and grandmothers from the Lucca area (including my own grandmother) have gathered Erbi for thousands of years handing down their knowledge from generation to generation. I suppose it’s a sign of modern times that aspiring cooks are going to an official cooking school to learn Erbi!
Besides soup, Erbi are cooked in pies, as a side dish and even in some desserts. Maria explained that the most important thing she learned at this school was to always use the right taste and balance of Erbi in any preparation. She was taught to be sure that the preparation contained no wild green that “stonava” (stonare means to be “out-of-tune” or “off-key”). In other words, when cooking, you should always make sure there is no ingredient that clashes with the others and that everything blends together harmoniously.
The concept of food being balanced and “in tune” is one often used in Tuscany. It goes side-by-side with the philosophy of paying attention to each detail. All ingredients used in each step along the way should complement each other and form a great-tasting end result like the notes in a musical symphony. Tuscans use the “out-of-tune” guide as an aesthetic barometer in many ways: In fashion, art, cooking, architecture and in family life, it is important to make sure things are always “In tune.” Do you cook in tune? Is your life in tune?
November is olive harvest in Tuscany!
My cousin Massimo from Viareggio called this week because he was so excited to have his very own e.v.o.o. for the very first time. Anyone who has even a few olive trees on a small piece of land in Italy carefully picks and gathers their bounty and takes the lot to a local frantoio (olive oil press).
His call reminded me that this is a wonderful time of year to be in Tuscany.
For thousands of years, late October/early November has been the right time in Italy to pick and gather those full, ripe fruits produced from the ancient, gnarly olive trees. In Tuscany, the varied-colored nets that have been spread under the trees are filled with fallen olives and you can catch glimpses of olive pickers in the trees among the silvery leaves. Olives are still picked by hand.
Everyone’s “Bucket List” should include “I want to taste extra virgin olive oil immediately after it comes out of the press!” At no other time will the olive oil taste this wonderful as it immediately starts to lose some of its amazing organoleptic properties after pressing. This is why olive oil must be quickly bottled and stored in a dark, dry place.
If you are like me, you’ll want to savor the new oil directly from a spoon. Or, pour a bit over a slice of great bread and you will have an incredible treat.
Freshly-pressed olive oil is used in recipes that highlight its fresh taste and penetrating fragrances such as simple fish or vegetable recipes and carpaccio,
Tuscan wine, passion, food and romance
I am often asked how wine fits into the Tuscan lifestyle. Wine is intrinsic to life in Tuscany as the ancient Etruscans cultivated wild grapes to make wines in the area that is now Tuscany since before Roman times. The Tuscan way of life is based on passion and wine in Tuscany is no exception.
Wine appreciation in Tuscany goes well beyond wine tasting – it is a total sensual experience! Where else can sip wine and savor food made with the freshest most delectable ingredients resulting from recipes going back hundreds of years? In Tuscany, wine and food are intentionally meant to ‘marry’ well.
If you are looking for a romantic wine getaway, ideal locations in Tuscany include the high peaks of the Apuan Alps, the cypress-outlined, rolling hills of the Chianti area, jagged seaside cliffs, the enchanting Tuscan islands or the beautiful beaches of the Italian Riviera. It does not get much sexier than the self-assured way Tuscans dress or carry themselves. Stay a while and learn to fit in with the locals.
As for specific wines, Chianti is one of Italy’s robust reds and there are over 10,000 acres of vineyards in the Chianti area. How long will it take you to cruise all that acreage with your rented red Ferrari?
If great restaurant explorations are your cup of tea, you have but to choose from a list of world-class offerings around the Tuscany region. Or, you can go exploring country roads and discover your own favorite romantic hideaway with “Mamma” cooking in the kitchen and the rest of the family making you feel welcome.
Did you know that Tuscany’s wines go way beyond Chianti? The world-renowned Brunello di Montalcino area is ideal for having an exquisite meal with your lover in a beautiful castle among the vineyards and olive groves while enjoying pasta, cured meats, crostini, bruschette and an array of world-class cheeses – all this and one of the world’s great wines.
You can be tantalized by the blending of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon used to make the full-bodied Super Tuscan Wines. Or, if you find decadent desserts more alluring, try pairing one with Vin Santo (a Tuscan dessert wine). A stand-alone sweet wine for staying “in the moment” is a sweet Vino di Meditation or wine to meditate on.
The ultimate experience may be to visit Tuscany in the autumn harvest season to get your arms around the grape gathering and crushing then taste the wonderful result of your labors. Some winemakers in Tuscany still stomp grapes with their feet and welcome visitors to get in on the action. Squishing grapes with your toes in the middle of a picturesque landscape and involving all your senses is quite sexy indeed.
According to Italian news sources ASCA-AFP, ruins of a villa in all probability belonging to Emperor Vespasian (Roman emperor from 69 – 79 AD) were discovered about 70 kilometers (circa 44 miles) northeast of Rome on August 6. Coincidentally, Italy is commemorating the two thousandth year of Vespasian’s birth this year.
The villa is situated in the little village of Falacrine in the province of Rieti in what used to be the Sabine territory in antiquity.
Leading the group of international archeologists on this dig is Filippo Coarelli, a professor from the University of Perugia. Coarelli stated:
“The villas of this period generally don’t bear any inscriptions which makes it difficult to attribute ownership. But there are many indications, including the location, that lead us to believe that this is the villa where the Emperor Vespasian was born.”
Everyone loves Julia Child as evidenced by the opening of this week’s much-anticipated movie “Julie and Julia,” sure to be seen by foodies and food buffs all over the world.
During her long television career, Julia was known as the “French Chef.” Julia studied at length in France at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school. However, Julia and her husband were gourmets and loved food from many nations. In fact, according to a Julia Child biography on Answers.com, Julia’s passion for cooking originated during her assignment to China in 1941 where she was influenced by her future husband Paul’s passion for food.
What you may not know, is that Julia Child had a great love for Italy and Italian food as well. This one-woman dynamo hosted an annual luxury tour to Italy for food buffs during her long career.