The trend in dining is – thankfully – farm to table where one prepares and eats meals using the freshest ingredients available locally, and in the season. We took to this back in 2014 when we were living briefly in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, we were surrounded by fresh seafood, and fresh produce from the Annapolis Valley, delicious wines and craft beers from the local industry and every meal, especially if prepared by a youthful, creative millennial chef, treated our palate to memorable fare.
We arrived in Tuscany at the time of very important harvests. Fields of old vines were dripping with thick luscious purple Sangiovese grapes, ready to be made into the infamous Chiantis and Super Tuscans of the region. The grapes are handpicked at the end of September. We have learned a lot about fermentation, and ageing, and drying, and various types and styles of wine, and their appellations – from DOC to DOCG etc. We have visited wine cellars, and wine show rooms and had many wine tastings. We have consumed many, many bottles of the product, sampling and enjoying the vintage with our favourite Parmesan.
Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese is also produced with strict guidelines, and controlled by a Consorzio and it too, has been an education and a voyage of discovery. While in Florence, we had the opportunity to sample a platter of 5 different parmesan cheese – aged 12, 24, 36, 70 and 101 months. The youngest was quite noticeable, enjoyable put not as preferred as the 3 year old (36months). The older cheese was harder, darker, more pungent, often with small crystals. These were by far my favourite, especially with a strong red wine – Sangiovese blended with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and Merlot.
We have taken to reading and blogging shortly after lunch, listening to an Italian opera, or a classical piece from Vivaldi, or Verdi, sipping on a local Chianti or Rosso, and dining on parmesan cheese aged 30 months, while the birds outside chirp and complete our Tuscan tableau. It is the most peaceful, and restful time of the day and we cherish it.
Later, when stores reopen at 4pm, we might run an errand, or begin planning our dinner, inspired by the local products we have in the icebox. Fresh, wholesome ingredients, creating some of our favourite creations such as thickly chopped salami, roasted with perhaps a bit of pancetta in olive oil and garlic, adding a few strands of thin peppers, green beans and a bit of pasta. Tossing it all and topping up with fresh parmesan. I cannot tell you how amazing it all tastes.
The olives are ripe for the picking now. The owners of our villa have fields of olive trees and they have begun harvesting. The olives are black, but I suspect there are some green ones elsewhere. We noticed them spreading the nets at the bottom of the trees on Sunday, after church. They use a long pole, with a motorized 4-prong hook at the top, to shake the fruit off the branches. Once they are satisfied that all the ripe olives have fallen from the tree, they collect the large net and drag it to the vehicle where the contents are added to a large vat. They will take the olives to be pressed into olive oil, and will marinate some. The olives in Italy – and Spain and Greece for that matter – taste NOTHING like the heavily salted versions we find on the grocery store shelves back home. The ones we enjoy on our cheese platters are crunchy, and delightful, and taste different because they are not as salty.
Most vineyards also make olive oils. High quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil is controlled and moderated just like the wine industry. There are certain standards to meet, in order to be call itself authentic extra virgin oil of the highest quality. When accompanied with the locally produced balsamic vinegar, and slices of fresh baguette, its a delicious afternoon snack, or appetizer. We have always cooked with the oil, and more so here, when preparing all of our meals.
I could not end this blog without a brief reference to Vin Santo. We were introduced to it by the handsome Edwardo, during one of our winery visits. It is a very sweet dessert wine, more syrupy than the ice wine we know, however, not like Sherry or Port. It is quite unique to the region, and its origins go back at least to the Renaissance. It is called holy wine most likely because of its use during communion. The grapes are harvested in September and laid to dry (or hung from rafters) for months at a specific temperature. When they have achieved the desired dryness in late spring, they are crushed and placed in vats, with vino santo from the previous year added to speed along fermentation once the temperature increases a few degrees. It is most often served after dinner, in a small “grappa” glass. When it is served with a biscotti, it is called “cantucci e vin Santo”, a favourite at Christmas we are told.
I wish we could bring back cases of our favourite wines, and wheels of parmesans and strings of salamis and prosciutto hams, along with bottles of balsamic vinegar, olives and olive oils. Alas, we will need to be more discerning when shopping for these products back home. Lesser imitations will no longer be acceptable. Oh, how travel changes you.