A Foodie’s Temptation (Why everything tastes better in Italy)

Osteria L’Acquachetta has a handwritten sign on the front door that tells visitors if you want a seat, fogettaboutit. Go home.  If you don’t have a reservation, don’t bother.This is not a pretentious little bistro, it’s the favourite place to eat for tourists and locals in Tuscany’s Montepulciano area.
And it is not hard to understand why.
The Lovely Anina

 

Tell waitress Anina that you come from Canada, and she gives you a hug and asks you if we know Debbie Travis – a regular when she is in town.

There are half a dozen long tables side by side, so you never know who your dinner companions will be. My first visit I sat beside two vegetarians from San Francisco. Interesting because at the far end of the restaurant in the kitchen , huge slabs of beef sit on a counter in front of a wood burning stove.

Guilio – Man of Meat

The kitchen  is where Guilio is king.  Order a steak “alla” Fiorentina and Guilio hacks off a slab and brings it to the table for your consideration. My husband Steve, who is a certified carnivore, thought he had died and gone to meat heaven.

The rest of the specials are handwritten on a piece of brown paper and basically feature anything that tickled Guilio’s fancy at the market

that morning or something delectable dropped off by one of the farmers in the region who knows what he’s looking for.

Anina prepared a cornucopia of appetizers – from fried zucchini flowers, to Scamorza cheese baked with thin slices of pear, peperonata, and some concoction with fennel and onion that we wiped clean.

Then there were too many choices on the list of specials so there was plenty of sharing involved among our group of eight. Saltimboca, grilled rabbit, homemade pork sausages, tagliatelle with lamb ragu (a crowd favourite) – all reasonably sized portions.

 

Then there was the beef. You can’t really come to the Osteria without trying the steak.  It’s like going to Moishe’s in Montreal and ordering a peanut butter sandwich.  Our one slab of beef, worthy of serving at Fred Flintstone’s table,  weighed in at 1.9 kilos. And don’t ask for it well done.  Guilio is armed with a cleaver.

 

The colourful  owner has a few other rules, too. Don’t  ask for a cappuccino or any other frou frou item you would find on a tourist menu.  Oh, then there is a glass rule. you only get one glass for water and wine. It’s up to you to use it wisely. The house wine was a exceptionally quaffable Rosso Di Montepulciano at a whopping six Euros a litre, good enough to order five more.

While we couldn’t finish every bite, we did a fair amount of damage. Maria wanted to gnaw the meat bone, and I think Phil may have licked the dessert plate. Yes…we had dessert too and coffee all around. It started at one Tiramisu with eight forks, then Anina mentioned the chocolate cake and something with peaches. Lynn declared it the best  meal she has ever had and threw down the gauntlet to recreate it at a future gathering.

When it came time for the bill, the guesses ranged from 270 – 350  Euros considering that slab of beef and the parade of dishes that we ordered. Guilio came to the table and did the accounting right in front of us on a paper tablecloth.  The grand total…190 Euros – less than 50 per couple.

No wonder you need reservations!

Still Guessing

This has been an absolutely crazy week for me…my blogging partner in crime is currently away having the time of her life in Italy, as you can see from the previous post.  Since we also work together at our day jobs, when she’s not there things get a little stressful for me. There were a couple of big projects that needed to be taken care of, which meant I worked 23 hours from Tuesday morning til Wednesday night.  This of course didn’t leave time for much else except a little sleep so when I finally got back to my desk I found 2 new mystery boxes sitting there.

To boot I got a note from whoever is organising #thelabelproject that I had to figure out what these last two wines are and send in all my tasting notes by tomorrow afternoon.

So here I sit, sipping from bottle #2.  It arrived as usual in a box with a couple of clues and some chocolate

(Oh yes, I cracked that at the office to alliviate the stress – I would have cracked the wine as well but for some reason there’s a company policy against drinking wine at your desk – a shame really because I could have use a drink today!)

The clue states the winters are cool and wet but summer days are warm dry and sunny, well that could describe half of the globe so not much help there.  The varietal clues says spicy aroma of rich fruit cake, berry flavours with a hint of dark chocolate.

Since I better get a move on I’ve had a glass of wine #2 and I’m cracking bottle #3 which comes from a maritime climate, tastes of ripe cassis with a hint of mint…hmmm.

Right now all I definately know is these wine are from Australia.  This is definately tough work but someone’s got to do it.  But whether I get it right or wrong, it’s been a lot of fun trying to figure it out.  Considering in my line of work I get pitched a ton of marketing campaigns, some definately better than others.   So whoever came up with this idea deserves koodos because it definately caught my attention, way to go #thelabelproject

 

 

 

The Best Day Ever

There are days that are circled on your personal calendar of life followed by five stars. Today has been one of those days.

The Salcheto Vineyard

We started out by visiting Salcheto, one of my favourite wineries in Tuscany. The vines, heavy with ripe fruit, are ready for picking. Three years ago when we came to Cortona with friends for a birthday celebration, we were introduced to Salcheto, producer of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Salcheto’s Vertical Garden

 

It was one of highlights  of a week. And we stayed in touch with the director of hospitality, Ettore (Italian version of Hector) even when the winery was operating out of the back of a restaurant while the main facility was being turned into an ecological marvel.  Ettore gave us a tour and orchestrated a tasting of their outstanding wines over a Tuscan brunch.

The lunch of homemade pasta e fagioli and a plate  of Tuscan meats and cheeses was spectacular, the wine even more so.

My husband Steve at the Mozart Vineyard

Next stop about 35 km from Montepulciano was a winery known for its music.  Il Paradiso Di Frassina believes music will influence the growth of the vines. So it plays Mozart in the vineyard, 24 hours a day. This relatively small operation is in the heart of Brunello country – a region so beautiful that everywhere you look, is a photograph worthy of framing.Returning to Montepulciano, a 16th century hilltop town, we wandered down the side streets steep enough to give your calves a serious workout. We poked around the little shops, including my favourite, Fantamagoria where all the jewelry is handcrafted by the owner. I found a necklace that will make me smile and think of this day every time I wear it.

Then it is wine with a view.   Lucevan e Stelle, a little bar-restaurant at the top of the hill at magic hour.  the outdoor terrace overlooks the valley. Kristian and Luca, attentive, informative, knowledgable to a fault, suggest their favourites from their wall of wine. Each has the  price to order by the bottle, or for 20% less, to take home (which made one of my traveling companions wonder why the mark up has to be so much in restaurants in Canada – GOOD QUESTION! Two visits – 6 bottles. Seems about right.

Guilio – Owner of Osteria Acquachetta

Our day of days,  ended with dinner  at Osteria Acquachetta, a little hole in the wall with a big reputation. It’s the kind of place that represents everything that is best about dining in Italy. It’s loud. Its crowded. The owner and server have personality galore! Anina who is seven months pregnant, greets us like we are old friends.Guilio the owner, armed with a cleaver and eyebrows that stretch halfway up his forehead, deftly navigates the tables loaded down by slabs of beef. The food and wine just keep coming. Each dish is better than the last. The house wine, an excellent a Rosso di  Montalcino cost  6 euros a litre. That’s right. Less than $7.50 a LITRE.

What made this day so special, was getting to share all of this with my husband and with some of my dearest friends.

So when I will have one of those days that feels far too long, and couldn’t end soon enough, I will look back on this one, and know that whatever is going on, I have been truly blessed.

Loving Local

Tundra Lobby Bar

Recently I had a chance to visit the newly renovated Tundra Restaurant and lobby bar in Toronto’s Hilton Hotel.  Quintessentially Canadian from decor to cuisine the restaurant has won several awards in the past.  The textures used to create this new space are visually pleasing, warm and inviting, making both hotel guests and restaurant patrons feel like they’re enjoying a true Canadiana experience with a modern twist.

Chef Kevin Prendergast

Keeping it local on many levels Executive Chef Kevin Prendergast changes the menu seasonally and even has his own herb garden at the hotel.  From salmon to lamb chops, Cornish hen to grilled octopus the menu has something for everyone. I got a chance to sample several things off the fall menu including the seared duck breast which was my favourite.  One thing I noticed on the menu that I really liked was the fact that each dish came with a wine recommendation.

Since so many people get intimidated by trying to select a wine to pair with their meal and this takes away the stress and makes everyone feel like a sommelier.

Seared Duck Breast

Along with international wines they also carry a good selection of Ontario VQA wines and even have a house red and white provided by a Niagara vineyard which they serve at special functions.  So many people are realising its important to support our local growers and its nice to see that along with individuals restaurants are stepping up to the plate.

So whether you’re planning on staying the night or just looking for a place to enjoy dinner with friends, check in and check out the menu.

The Mystery Continues – Box #2 Arrives

As with any good mystery it’s the anticipation of the next clue that gets you excited. If you’ve been following our stories you’ll be familiar with this one, but if not take a minute to go back and read the story I posted on September 10 about a challenge I’ve been invited to take called The Label Project.

Wine Delivery – Bottle #1

So last week I received another delivery at the office once again from “Sender Unknown”. Already eagerly awaiting this package I opened it to once again find a wooden wine box with the front marked The Label Project.

This time there was actually a bottle of wine inside along with a letter of instructions, 2 written wine clues pertaining to the wine varietal and regional location as to where the wine comes from.

Also inside were 3 small spray bottles each containing a different scent associated with that particular varietal.

Like any good detective I first inspected the bottle for any obvious clues and even though the front label revealed nothing there was a small label on the back that stated White Wine, Product of Australia.  Well that was easy…but what next?

Written Wine clue #1 stated the region lies between two other major and much older wine regions and it’s famous for its fruit produce including cherries, pears and apples.  So I’m going for South Australia as it lies between New South Wales and Western Australia even though New South Wales is also well-known for its fruit production.

The Three Aromas

Next I started with the 3 aromas – #1 was definitely citrus, #2 was peaches or nectarines and #3 smelled a lot like hazelnuts but since these are most likely synthetic aromas it was hard to tell, they could have been trying to emulate cat pee a scent closely associated with Sauvignon Blanc and since the wine was white this could be a possibility.

 

Comparing the Colour

Sometimes its easier to figure out what something is by knowing what it’s not. Upon pouring the wine into a glass and seeing it’s colour I also poured a glass of something I definitely knew was an oaked chardonnay and compared the two.  This definitely wasn’t an oaked Chardonnay, it had a pale straw colour with a silvery rim but what is it?

Next was the nose…it wasn’t very fruit forward so I’m thinking it’s a cool climate because a hot climate wine is usually very fruit forward.

The taste was crisp and fresh with a high acidity so I’m guessing it’s a Sauvignon Blanc from somewhere near Adelaide in South Australia but what do I know I’m totally guessing.  I figured it would go really well with the Cheese Fondue we were having for dinner so that’s how I enjoyed it.

Do you think you could guess a wine from these clues?  It’s easy to create a fun challenge like this for yourself and totally makes for a great dinner party game, just take a couple of bottles and don’t let them out of the bag…pour the wine and challenge yourself and your friends and remember don’t judge a wine by it’s label.

 

 

 

 

Never Too Old To Learn Something New

No matter how old I am, or the fact my children are long past the days of report cards, September will always be back to school time for me. A couple of years ago, I decided to further my wine education. I had been to a couple of wineries in Italy and California. I certainly had sampled many wines. And I watched Sideways and Bottleshock – I figured I knew a fair bit –  so I convinced my partner in wine Tina to take a course at George Brown College.

HOLY GRAPES!!!

Soooo many study notes

The first thing I learned was I know absolutely nothing! My first six weeks of notes upon notes upon notes – confirmed it. I admit, I am a bit of a control freak. And facing week after week of “What do you smell?”

Deep breath. Pause. Second Deep Breath……um…red wine?  No, I did not smell “Smores”.

I would break into a sweat when called upon to analyze a wine. I envied those who knew all the answers.  Why exactly did I put myself through this classroom torture?

Because ever so slowly, it started to make sense. I became a study fiend. I traded in my novels for the textbook. I memorized the wine regions out loud before going to sleep. I studied my index cards on the treadmill to the entertainment of others at the gym.

I survived and even passed Wines One. The next semester signed up for Wines Two – which is similar but goes into more depth and like anything, helped to find a semi-permanent spot on the rapidly-running-out-of-space-on-the-hard-drive that is my brain.

The other reason the torture is worth it – you get to try an incredible number of wines – between 8-12 wines  each class.  It is such great exposure to the world of wine with classmates who are either enrolled because they work in the industry, or like me, they simply loved to drink wine.

Our teacher Serge Jancic, took it one step further in Wines Two….the term paper. I had not tackled one of those for 30 years. Before Google. OMG, another reason to love Google. While I stressed about the assignment, I ended up loving it. I made so many discoveries  – from amazing wines, regions, writers, columnists etc.

At the end of the day, it is a lot of fun. And it worked a completely different part of the brain than my day job. I met great people who love wine as much as I do. And while my wine knowledge is still ever so limited, it has sparked my curiosity to learn more  –  and isn’t that the real gift  of education?

So it being September and all, I am heading back to class again – this time to study New World Wines – but this time, (being that occasional Control Freak) – I am starting to read up now so this time I might be one of the smart asses with the odd right answer!

Stay tuned.

Wednesday Wine Picks from the WOW

Light and refreshing, with some lovely warm weather still in store for us a nice a chilled Rosé matches with almost any dish. Here’s one I think you might all enjoy.

Triomphe a Triumph

Triomphe Cabernet Franc Rose 2011 gets a vigorous nod this week. I bought a couple of bottles when I took the @iyellow wine tour last month and stopped at Southbrook, a  gorgeous winery in the Niagara region. Neither my husband or I are big Rosé drinkers, but I must admit, this one was really good. Not too sweet, red berry flavours made it  a great choice for a glass with lunch Ono this lovely weekend.

$19.95 Vintages LCBO #279117
But of course just at we head into fall, the weather is often unsettled.  Lots of rain and cooler temps, perfect for curling up with a good book and a glass of Shiraz.
A Shiraz with Legs

Fifth Leg Old Dog New Tricks Shiraz

This medium-bodied red from Devil’s Lair Winery in Western Australia is cherry and spine and everything nice. I have had their their Shiraz, Merlot, Cab before and it one a blind tasting among friends even up against some much pricier options. Definitely worth a try especially at is price.
 $15.95 LCBO #281345