Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuscany Looks and Tastes Like Tuscany Should

Our ride from Rome to Figline Val d’Arno in Tuscany went pretty much as expected. The GPS took us the most annoying way possible, the combination of traffic lights and heat annoyed us as we tried to leave the city and Tuscany looked just like Tuscany should - if you’re to believe film and TV, which you should. It’s absolutely stunning, and any road higher than sea level gives you the most picturesque, warmly lit and hazy views of golden fields, vineyards and castles.

We were happy to add a new home comfort to our thus far inanimate list of travelling traditions - Richard and Kim, our friends from Sorrento, had decided to stay at the same camp as us again. This marked the third campsite we had been at together so the scenery may have changed as we all travelled north every few days, but we now had real neighbours and friends.

We didn’t find them until after we had enjoyed another tradition – our travel habit of eating dinner at the camp restaurant on ride days. The food was good but it could have been rubbish for all I cared – I ordered a glass of wine that sounded like my cup of tea (sweet and sparkling) and it tasted just like Moscato, my favourite drop at home and something that hasn’t passed my lips since we left. As it turned out, it was Moscato, but we didn’t figure this out until we saw the same wine on a menu the next day, with subtext stating as much.

That next day was a goodun. We set out with every intention of going to San Gimignano, a walled city just over an hour away, but we didn’t want to go on the motorway. We tricked the GPS into taking us past a few small towns and around the windy roads that cut through the countryside. The first small town we came to was Greve, a village we intended on visiting that night with Richard and Kim for an annual Wine Tasting Festival that just happened to be on.

As it happened, we never made it past Greve. We decided we couldn’t be bothered with the trek to San Gimignano after the late start we had given ourselves, so we parked up to check out Greve. Greve had been on our list since the idea of visiting Tuscany had been but a sparkle in our eyes, when Courtney saw a salami shop in Greve on a travel show on TV. The salami shop was closed for siesta but we found plenty more to keep us occupied for awhile.

We bypassed the festival, saving that fun for our evening out. Instead we wandered the streets of the town, checking out a wine cellar and eventually settling on by-the-slice pizza from a little takeaway shop that sold every kind of beer you could ever imagine, hundreds of different bottles in every shape, size, flavour and price. We ate our pizza and drank our beer on the shady steps of the church across the road before turning back for home.

It was only a matter of hours before we were back again with Richard and Kim, this time armed with a wine glass and festival guide each. You got both for 10 Euros and the guide included 7 free wine tastings. Olive oil, biscotti and preserves were all free to try and as we discovered many of the vendors weren’t to bothered with clicking off our tasting passes either, so there was a lot of bang to be had for our buck.

Despite attempting to find vino blanco (white wines) to start with, most of the festival was full of red. The real star of the show, besides the incredible Tuscan Olive Oil, was the new love of my life – Vin Santo. Courts had tasted a few wines at the camp cellar the previous night and had told me of one that was made essentially with raisins. I hate raisins and didn’t think much of the idea until we put two and two together and realized he had been talking about this one. The grapes are left until they just about fall off, and the result is a syrupy thick dessert wine that tastes almost like a mulled wine, like it’s spiced. It’s not though, it’s au naturale, and the Italians traditionally dip biscotti in it, especially around Christmas time. I tried it with biscotti twice and in a glass three times (once was finishing Richards, who didn’t quite see it in the same light as I) and it was love at first through fifth tasting.

When the sun had gone down and we had each developed a warmth of our own by the glass, we found a restaurant on the main square and settled in for dinner. I chose Lemon and Rosemary Risotto and oh my goodness it was the most amazing flavour you can imagine. The after taste of the herbs made me think of Lavendar Ice Cream while the soft hints of lemon made a thick, creamy winter food taste light and summery. Courts made his way through pasta and was so enamoured with Kim’s beef stew that he then had a second dinner of that too. Richard filled himself to the brim with a thick manly T-Bone that Kim eyed up for the sharing, and us girls finished it all off with Pannacotta in a white grape syrup.

Thoroughly full and still slightly hazy, we were all very ready to collapse when the time came to turn back. Richard had been very kind and driven us all in, which not only meant that he had to spit the majority of his tastings out but that himself and Kim had to turn their rental van back from usable transport to comfy accommodation while Courts and I just faded into the shadows of our tent. Eternally grateful for small luxuries, we slept in the lingering cloud of a wonderful night with lovely people and incredible gastronomy.