Sunday, April 26, 2009

Baaaaaack to the Farm

One evening last week I had dinner in the home of a Sardinian sheep farming family. I can’t believe I just wrote that. But it’s true. I had heard about this family and the incredible cheeses they make from my friend Vittorio Cambio who owns a beautiful property called Villa Ferraia near Monticiano about 45 minutes south of Castello di Casole. I asked Vittorio if he would bring me along the next time he visited the family to which he replied “Why should I?? Then you will write about it on your blog and everyone will know about it!!”

I had all but forgotten about this family and their cheeses when out of the blue Vittorio called and asked if I would join him for dinner with his friends at the sheep farm, and he also told me I could bring a few people as well. Coincidentally, a wonderful couple, Gayle and Paul, who are waiting for their farmhome to be built at Castello di Casole were staying at our private guesthouse. So we all jumped in the car with our umbrellas on a rainy Sunday evening and set off towards Radicondoli where Vittorio guided us down a nondescript gravel road to the sheep farm of Giovanni Porcu.

As we arrived, the sheep (pecori) were excitedly queuing up for a quick meal and milking in the barn. When Giovanni gave them the signal, a group of about 30 sheep rushed through a little opening between the barn and the milking area and lined up one next to the other along a long trough filled with food until every open space was claimed. Tubes with powerful suction hoses were attached to the teats of the sheep and while they were being milked they chomped away at their dinners. As we were watching this fascinating spectacle, Giovanni’s farmhand passed into my arms a baby sheep with the softest white fur that had been born the day before. I could have held onto that little bleating bundle of joy for hours.

Vittorio led us through a room where the milk was being directed into a large steel container and into the cheese-making facility. About twenty big rounds of bright white cheese were bobbing in a large vat of water to remove the salt they had been curing in. Others were still packed in salt in big plastic containers. As we proceeded to a particular closed door, Vittorio warned us that the aroma we were about to encounter was not unlike that of bad foot odor. We headed into a room loaded with trays cheeses of various shapes and shades from creamy white to dark yellow, all covered in mold. Some had been made with rennet (expelled from the lining of baby sheep stomachs after their first suckling- you might not have wanted to know that). Others were made with a vegetable rennet which is a slower process dating back to the times of Dante but well worth the wait.

Then Vittorio opened another door that led into a little shop where the family sells their cheeses to the public. He chose three cheeses for us to sample, starting with the youngest which had been aged for three months with a smooth, slightly nutty flavor, to the oldest called Tallegio which was covered in a moldy rind and quite potent. All three were delicious and a great precursor to the incredible dinner awaiting us.

When we entered the Porcu family farmhome, Giovanni’s wife Giovanna was rolling out dough for the appetizers and dessert stuffed with different blends of pecorino cheeses and deep fried into puffy, mouth-wateringly delicacies. A different type of dough was rolled out and fed into a pasta maker for the raviolis stuffed with fresh ricotta and herbs. While we watched Giovanna and her daughters prepare dinner, Giovanni brought out a big bowl-shaped hunk of the freshest, fluffiest, creamiest ricotta I have ever tasted. I had several large spoonfuls and had to stop myself from eating the whole thing. Plates of steaming stuffed treats then a huge roasted leg of lamb circled the table. Vittorio served as our translator as we shared stories of our lives over the wonderful meal and big pitchers of Rosso di Montepulciano.

As we bade farewell to our new Sardinian friends and stepped out into the rainy black night, Gayle, Paul and I were a little overcome by the extraordinary experience we had just shared. It is one that we will never forget, and it’s yet another reason why so many of us are so drawn to this little stretch of Italian countryside.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Friends and Great Wines

When I first arrived in Tuscany back in mid-February, my associate and good friend Georgia suggested that I meet her friends Barbara and Guiseppe at Giuseppe’s family winery in Chianti. At the time, the two were in the States hosting dinners and wine tastings in the homes of their clients, a clever way to escape the wet winters in Tuscany.

When they returned I was delighted to receive an email from Barbara inviting me to spend an afternoon with them at their winery near Montevarchi. On the day of my visit I took the GPS system out of the box it had been sitting in for two weeks and punched in the address of the winery. There are hundreds of wineries in Chianti, so as I set off for the verdant hills and winding roads of Chianti, I have to say that I wasn’t focusing on the wine so much as the opportunity to make new friends.

When I arrived at
I Selvatici and entered the tasting room, Barbara and Giuseppe greeted me as though we had known each other for years. I had been there only a few minutes when Barbara said “Wait, there’s a problem here! You’re not holding a glass of wine.” She led me to a table neatly set with three wine glasses lined up at each plate and when Giuseppe brought over a plate of various cheeses, I knew I was in for a treat.

Giuseppe Sala is a third-generation winemaker and the only one in his family to speak English. His grandfather bought their 30 acres of land and the 15th-century villa complete with its own chapel and wine cellar in the 1950s. It was Giuseppe’s idea to build the light and spacious tasting room where he hosts private tastings and events for his clients. Relative to other larger commercial wineries in Tuscany with extravagantly landscaped grounds, guided tours, lavish lunches and fully stocked shops selling their wines, olive oil and other products, there is a noticeable lack of pomp and circumstance at I Selvatici. It is all about the wine, and for good reason.

The first vintage Giuseppe poured was a 2007 Chianti, a blend of Sangiovese and another local grape called Canaiolo. As we sipped away Giuseppe and Barbara shared with me some very interesting facts about Chianti. Here are a few I jotted down:

- Chianti is actually a region, like Bourdeaux, not a grape.
- In order for a bottle to earn the right to wear the pink neck label, the grapes must have been grown and pressed in Chianti without any irrigation and the blend must be at least 75% Sangiovese.
- Chianti “Reserve” simply means the wine has been aged for three years.
- Chianti Classico is a region within Chianti, not a special reserve wine. Chianti Classicos are distinguished by a black rooster on their pink neck labels.
- There four other regions in Chianti are- Colle Arentini (around Arezzo) Colle Ferentini (around Florence), Colle Senese (around Siena) and Colle Pisani (around Pisa).

While Giuseppe began to pour the second tasting, a 1997 Super Tuscan called Cardisco (which means Sangiovese in Italian) comprised of100% Sangiovese into our glasses, his eyes lit up and he became quite animated. This was clearly a wine he as very proud of and as I swirled and sniffed the liquid then took my first sip, I could easily see why. Usually Sangioveses are a bit too harsh and acidic for my personal taste, but this wine was surprisingly smooth, especially when paired with a hard aged cheese like the Parmesean Reggiono we were enjoying it with.

I had always assumed that a wine made from 100% of the same grape was easier to make than a blend, but Giuseppe was quick to point out that blends are actually easier because you can keep adding a bit of this, a bit of that, until you get exactly what you are looking for. Whereas with a 100% Sangiovese, it’s pretty much all up to Mother Nature and you get what you get each harvest season. The real art for Giuseppe is determining how much time each year’s vintage should be aged in French Oak barrels after it ferments before it is transferred to steel tanks. Obviously he is very good at this part of the process because Cardisco has consistently earned a 93 rating from Wine Spectator and goes for about $200 for a bottle at restaurants in the U.S.

After a lunch that included bruschetta with some of the sweetest cherry tomatoes I have ever tasted, Giuseppe poured the grande finale- a 1999 Vin Santo. I have had my fair share of this traditional Tuscan dessert wine, which is usually served with biscotti for dipping. You wouldn’t want even a speck of biscotti, however, to fall into the sweet, sultry nectar that Giuseppe has created by blending Malvasia, Treppiano, Columbaio and a touch of Sangiovese which helps give it that rich amber color. There is no wonder that Wine Spectator has given this Vin Santo a 98 rating.

As I was savoring every sip, Giuseppe told me that Vin Santo is actually aged in an attic, as opposed to a cellar, where the heat and humidity work their magic. Each rib on the barrels is made of a different wood- chestnut, oak, juniper, Tuscan Oak, and another local wood called gelso. One day a few years ago, Giuseppe was rummaging through the attic in his home at the winery and discovered two barrels of Vin Santo that had been aging there for fifty years. He opened the cork fully expecting the wine to have turned, but instead he was greeted with a pleasant scent was so powerful that he knew something very special was inside. Three quarters of the barrels were sediment, and he and his father cut the remaining quarter which was a thick, heavy syrup, with Malvasia until it achieved the consistency of honey which they poured magic into small 3 oz. bottles which they sell for €600. Giuseppe let me taste a smidgen of this divine magic in a glass and there are simply not words to describe the exquisite taste and texture that lingered on my palate the whole drive home.

I am grateful to have become friends with Barbara and Giuseppe. While I enjoyed their wines immensely, I enjoyed their company even more. They are very special people and their stories, some of which I will share in future postings, are fascinating. Something tells me we are going to have many fun adventures together while I am living in Tuscany…

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cashmere in Chianti- Who Knew?

Last weekend had an incredible “this is why I live here!” experience that I have to share with you. My friend Joyce Falcone, of The Italian Concierge, who has a knack for finding really special, off-the-beaten-path places for her touring business, had told me to stop by a place called Chianti Cashmere in Radda in Chianti. All her email said is “American expat living in Radda for 30 years.” It wasn’t much to go on, but I had a free Saturday afternoon, the weather was lovely, and Radda is only a 40 minute drive from Castello di Casole so I jumped in the car, filled with excitement about yet another Tuscan adventure.

The scenery is such a feast for the eyes in Chianti that I could have spent the whole afternoon just driving around, but I was on a mission so I followed the directions which led me through Radda, down the hill and turning left at the fork onto SP72. Just 600 meters on the left is a little sign of a goat below a nondescript mailbox. The drive descends through a quiet forest where I sighted little groups of long-haired black and white goats grazing on the hillsides. At the end of the drive I pulled up to a little building and heard voices so I entered the shop.

The owner of Chianti Cashmere, Nora Kravis, was just in the middle of explaining her cashmere operation to some visitors and I was able to learn that Nora has 300 goats on her farm. She combs the Cashmere every spring (as opposed to shearing which leaves the poor goats with no protection from the elements) and then sends the fiber to northern Italy to have it de-haired and spun into yarn, which takes an entire year, believe it or not.

I was surprised to learn that in order to knit just one large scarf you need wool from three goats. The prices, which are quite reasonable given the extremely high quality, depend on how finely woven the yarn is. Her handmade scarves, wraps and throws are exquisite. Each one is a work of art in all natural colors (she uses no artificial dyes) and so incredibly soft. Nora also has a line of sumptuous goat’s milk soaps and body products, including a hand cream that I am now addicted to.

Just talking to Nora and hearing her story is worth the trip. She clearly loves what she does and she never tires of sharing her experiences with other people. Originally from Long Island, Nora landed in Radda in 1972 and was out exercising horses one day when she discovered a dilapidated little stone farmhouse nestled into the side of a steep, rocky hill. The views were magical and it felt like home so Nora restored the farmhouse so over the next ten years, during which she attended veterinary school in Pisa. Over time her family grew to include several dogs, five horses, two sheep, hens, a rooster, and two goats, Bella and Bestia.

Those two goats have grown into a group of genetically selected Cashmere goats, with wide-spread origins and wonderful names like Houdini, Igloo, Chatterbox, Mr. Magoo and Ice Cream. I found out from Nora that her little goat herd has become recognized nationally and in other countries of the EEC. Not only is it the first privately owned Cashmere goat herd in Italy, it is the genetic data base and source for reproductive animals across the country.

Nora’s farm is actually an agriturismo, (a B&B/farm combo) so you can stay there for a few nights and comb the goats or participate in whatever else is going on at the farm and explore the surrounding towns including Panzano, Greve and the adorable little hamlet of Volpaia. She also offers lunches featuring vegetables from her organic garden and tastings of goat’s milk cheeses- you just need to schedule this a few weeks in advance.

Chianti Cashmere is a special place owned and operated by an even more special woman, and if you happen to be in Chianti, it’s a “must see.”