The Big Chill meets Under the Tuscan Sun

Friends Italian Style

Take twelve people. Most of them strangers to one another.  Entice them with the promise of winning wines,  primo pastas and the other tantalizing tastes of Tuscany.

What do you get?

The Big Chill: Italian-style

When I turned  50, instead of shrinking from the F-word, my 50th year would be nothing short of F-F-Fabulous. I pitched a dazzling dozen of dynamic wine drinkers a villa vacation – and it proved to be an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Google tuscan villas and you hit about 1.5 million matches – everything from luxury villa retreats to castle apartments.  My group of seasoned travelers included hostel hoppers, cottage couples and travelling teens – old friends and new. Most had never been to Italy.

Our pool under the Tuscan sun

I gathered their preferences and narrowed it down to three properties: one about 20 minutes of Cortona, the stunning hill town made famous by Frances Mayer’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second near Siena and the other in Chianti – the heart of Tuscan wine country. The group voted and  committed with cash.

Our beautiful villa

I will admit to moments of trepidation. What if it was a scam? What if the pictures were of another villa surrounded by landfill? Or maybe there was no villa at all? How could I be sure?

Even worse, what if the villa was perfect and everyone didn’t get along?

We planned to meet in a parking lot outside Cortona. One thing you realize quickly – even when you speak Italian, getting directions is not easy. It’s more of a state of mind – like getting a recipe from my mother – a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  Invest in a GPS. In this case. no one had to pave paradise , you were surrounded by it.

A place of unbelievable beauty

Andrea, son of the villa owner, and most gracious host – met  us and accompanied  us to the villa. We never would have found it ourselves. The address was something like turn right after the bus stop at marker 232 and continue along the third dirt path until you are absolutely sure an axe murderer will pop out of the bushes and there’s no one to ask for help just chestnut trees and the odd family of wild boar.

But when we turned the final corner, it was obvious, the pictures on the web site didn’t come close.

Our villa turned out to be a 13th century treasure. Six bedrooms, each with its own separate bathroom over three floors, a huge dining room table where we ate every night and a living room with overstuffed couches  in front of the fireplace, with enough space to dance up a storm.

A villa fit for kings

The main kitchen was big enough that the wannabe Italian cooks never had to compete for space. Then there was the pool, the view and the price.   $2500 for the week or about $500 per couple.

My wonderful band of strangers bonded on the first night over the freshest salami, ripest tomatoes, most fragrant cheeses washed down by local wine. We brought our own music and danced until 3am. Nice start to wash away any worries.

A breathtaking view from the pool

But renting a villa with a group of people forces you to make all kinds of decisions.

Take a wine tour or a cooking class, a bike trip or feign jet lag and relax, visit  places with names that you’ve probably read on wine bottles. Montepulciano, Montalcino, Chianti, Orvieto.

We took the slow option and hung around the pool most of the first day.

A taste of Tuscany

Blame  Marcella – mother of our host Andrea. She arrived with her cheerful assistant Valentina to cook us a five-course dinner. And we didn’t want to miss a second. I was the only one who could speak passable Italian, but where there is a will there is a way. Johanne and Lynn watched as  the kitchen was transformed into a haven of heavenly smells. Marcella and Valentina whipped up three kinds of appetizers, spinach pie, two kinds of homemade pasta – yes made right then and there – one with fresh mushrooms, the other with fresh tomatoes and a chicken roasted with something delectable, all topped off with a fruit flan of some sort. Did I mention it cost 30 euros a person WITH wine?

Friends and family

There are moments in life when it feels like you are being rewarded for any good deed you have ever done in your life. That’s exactly how I felt. Graced with my daughter and her best friend who is like a daughter to me, my best friends who have been through the best and worst of times, and new friends who have become such an important part of my landscape – we all sat together around a table as families do. How could I be so lucky?

I knew I had nothing to worry about when Johanne one of my oldest and wisest friends said after the first night – there will be tears when we say goodbye.

The rest of the week just kept getting better. Picture the Big Chill – Italian style.  The kitchen became the hub. A few of us, standing around the centre island, one whipping up a salad, another a plate of antipasto – with the freshest ingredients bought that afternoon, another trying out a favourite pasta recipe as familiar to them  as breathing.

Our walking tour of Tuscany

We walked, we talked, we wine toured and talked more. We solved the problems of the  world. Any problem we had a world away.

And on the very last day – we had lunch outside the villa Under the Tuscan Sun – we drank too much – danced on tables and threw rose petals at the wind. But most important we got to experience that something special with people and a place that you will never  forget.

If you are going:

  • 6 months before departure date – confirm with potential housemates. You will find everyone wants to go, but when it comes time to commit, the group shrinks.
  • Get the group to rate their priorities: price, ensuite bathroom, close to town or in the country
  • Look for a recommendation.  We worked with rentvillas.com and our most gracious host Andrea who has a number of villas available info@casaleruffignano.com

 

Paradise by the Cheeseboard Light

Formaggio, oost, queso, fromage – cheese – loved and savoured, in any language. It even has the power to alter your dreams, according to one British study, but never gives you nightmares.

I came late to the cheese plate. I was one of those odd kids who didn’t like cheese. “I’m allergic,” I told people when they pushed a cube towards me. Then one day at  McD’s, my teenage crush du jour ordered a  quarter pounder WITH a gloppy square of yellow processed something. Of course, I was too well brought up to send it back.

And so it began.

This week, I discovered a cheese counter worthy of attention. My co-womanofwine blogger, Tina, has already described our outstanding experience at Toronto’s Alimento Fine Food Emporium a few posts ago..

But the cheese counter inside the Mercato is a story unto itself.  The Contardi brothers who own six Grande Cheese shops in the GTA opened Alimento in October of last year.  It’s half restaurant/Mozza bar and half high-end grocery store where you can sample the finest cheese, charcuterie, olive oil and balsamics. And let me tell you, this ain’t no sampling at Costco.
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Tammy Vitale is the Queen of Alimento’s cheese domain. She fell in love with cheese working in the Grande Cheese factory as a teenager.
Today, she hums, ponders, nibbles, savours to carefully select the dozens of cheeses sold at the Mercato at any one time.. Spend five minutes with her, and you know she is one of those people who is living the dream.
“My heart is truly into cheese. It’s my passion.”
Her greatest cheese moment; cracking a 50 kg wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a tradition passed down for centuries using a special set of tools to slowly indent the wheel until it breaks apart without crumbling. The process has been described as “cracking open happiness”. Tammy would agree. She describes it with the same reverence as witnessing a live birth.
That’s because many of her life experiences are wrapped in cheese history.
“I grew up in it.” She says she can’t imagine a life without cheese.
Alimento carries 250 varieties of cheese, 140 at any one time. From the freshest Bufala Mozzarella – Tammy’s favourite, to Gorgonzolas, Pecorinos, Friulano and Burrata. And placed among these crown jewels of Italian cheeses, you will see  a number of the finest  that the  Niagara region and Prince Edward County have to offer.
“People think of cheddar, blah mozzarella and cheese curds when they think of local cheese, but I think they are awesome,” says Tammy.
“They’re not as pungent or sharp, yet they are very unique,” she adds.
Tammy’s favourite cheese dish: room-temperature Bufala Mozzarella with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The biggest mistake people make: not taking their cheese out of the fridge for an hour or two before serving.  “It’s why the same cheese will always taste better in Italy” she says.
The other mistake: letting a commitment to low-fat keep you from cheese. “Just eat small amounts” says Tammy. “Though it can be addictive” she admits.
Not to mention, it can give you sweet dreams of some morsel in your future.

Good Bubbles for your Buck

Bring on the bubbly

Summer’s definitely the perfect time for something fun and light and it seems everyone is finding a way to add a little fizz to their wine.  Over the last few years Prosecco sales have risen dramatically and it seems wine makers from around the world have taken notice.  On a recent trip to my local LCBO I realized they actually devoted an entire row of sparkling wines and everyone from the Francis Ford Coppola winery in California to the Wolf Blass label in Australia are offering their versions of sparkling wines to get in on the action.  There even seems to be a good selection of rosé sparkling wines.

In fact, in 2011 Prosecco sales rose 50% and this sparkling wine has done a great job in terms of value.  When you look at the average cost of a half decent bottle of champagne coming in at around $70 and the fact you can get a nice bottle of Prosecco for under $15 which one would you choose if you were just looking for a fun drink for a sunny summer’s day?

Lovely to enjoy on its own Prosecco it’s also a great drink to serve with Hors d’oeuvres, antipasta, or seafood.  I actually found one I really enjoy called Il Prosecco and it’s only $11.75.  It reminds me of an old school pop bottle it doesn’t have your regular type of pop cork it but a cap.  The bubbles are lively and it has medium-intensity citrus, pear and melon notes with a dry, light-body and crisp, refreshing taste.

Il Prosecco by Mionetto from Italy

So at this price I say “Bring on the Bubbly”

A Super Tuscan Virgin

The words Super Tuscan evoke a certain reverence among wine lovers.  I first heard the term as a young news writer in Montreal. Apparently the Hells Angels were big fans. They fought the spiraling unemployment rate by hiring people to wait in line outside the SAQ when Super Tuscans went on sale for astronomical prices. I knew nothing about these warriors of wine with names like Tignanello, Sassicaia and Ornellaia. I was a 24-year old  beer drinker.

A lovely view of the Chianti region

Turn the clock forward 15, ok, more like 25 years, and at this point I have been to Tuscany. I visited a small winery located on the property and run by a God-like handyman named Arc-Angelo ( not kidding) and a raven-haired beauty named Allesandra who gave us a barrel tasting and explained what a Super Tuscan is all about.These wines produced by some of the greatest winemakers in Italy actually carried the same designation as simple  Table wine because they did not meet the specifications of Italy’s DOC and DOCG system. Enter Giovanni Goria, who in 1992 created a a new category – IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, which denoted a designer wine of sorts – a winemaker’s creation that did not follow a set formula. It was more  about a passion and drive for excellence and individuality.

And the thing about a passion – it opens up a world of experiences with other people who share it.  Tina and I were taking a wine course a while back and one day I was studying out loud, reciting the multitude of wine producing regions of Spain.  My dear Chilean friend Adriana, who happens to be an awesome massage therapist, helped me through my pronunciation. The next day she called me and said one of her friends/clients was opening a bottle of Vega-Sicilia and because we were taking this course, would we like to come sample?  I said where and what time.

1996 SASSICAIA

I will spare the details of an incredible house tour, including the “Hunter S. Thompson for Mayor ” poster in an upstairs bathroom and more books that I could ever read in a lifetime. But it was the first time I visited a wine cellar that made my heart flutter. What I saw first in that room of beauty were case upon case with the names of the Holy  Trinity: Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello. And  then there were the cases of California’s Opus One – the marriage of the Old and New World brilliance  of Robert Mondavi and Baron de Rothschild. I thought this must be what heaven will look like if I am really really good.Witnessing  our excitement (it may have been our wide eyes or the way we lovingly stroked the bottles ) our most gracious host asked if we would rather opt for an Italian than the Vega-Sicilia. I couldn’t help it. I was too close.  And I was a Super Tuscan virgin.

Tina and the Super Tuscans

The  four of us started with a bottle of Tignanello and I have to say, it was everything I dreamed it would be. When we toured the house, I took my glass with me. It was like the  Christmas when you got that present you wanted more than anything and refused to put it down for a second.  But this time, the presents kept getting better. We tasted  Sassicaia and Guado Al Tasso. We changed continents, moving to Chile’s finest Almaviva.

Then came Opus One.

The evening  was a life-changing experience. No offence to anyone,  but it was much more impressive than my other first time when I secretly wondered what all the fuss was about. As early as I was in my wine education, I  understood clearly  what all the fuss was about. I understood the meaning  of perfect balance, perfect complexity and what  separated great  from spectacular. And I understood that all the days going forward on this wine journey would be defined by the days before The Super Tuscans and the days after.