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The Golden Age of Tuscany

Dec 12, 2017 Written by: Hanna Tavner for i weekend
Villa Olmetto

Hanna Tavner visits an autumnal Italy, Tuscany’s Cooler months provide a bounty of seasonal produce set in beautiful surrounding.

Autumn in Tuscany is accompanied by a palpable excitement. The searing heat of the summer months has faded, the cooler temperatures al­ lowing for al fresco dining once more. The light softens and the colours turn. Yet the greatest cause for celebration is reserved for the food and drink this time of the year offers.

Like much of the country, Tuscany has built a reputation for its cuisine of rich produce and unparalleled wine. The grape harvest is one of the most memorable experiences you can enjoy in the region. The Italians even have a word for it – vendemmia. It’s a frenetic period where the whole family is put to work. Despite the toil, the vendemmia is one of the social highlights of the year.

Some vineyards allow visitors to participate during this period and others, somehow, continue to offer tours. Even if you don’t actively join in the harvest, it’s an idyllic time to enjoy the surrounding hive of activity before toasting
the new season’s wines. The harvest is marked with celebrations all over the region. Highlights include the Vino al Vino in Panzanoin Chianti, Bacco Artigiano in Rufina, Carro Matto in Florence and the Festa dell’Uva in Impruneta.

Legendary hospitality

We begin our tour of the region in Greve, widely regarded as the gateway to Chianti. Wine has been produced in this region since the Ettuscan period. We drive the Via Chiantigiana, one of Italy’s most scenic roads, mesmerised by the liner rows of vines that stretch into the distance.

We head back towards Bagno a Ripoli, Florence’s picturesque neighbour  and our home for the week. Villa Olmetto is a converted stone farmhouse,  part of a hamlet in the hills that overlooks the city.

From the pool, set amid olive groves and cypress trees, you can see the Arno1·iver and Florentine landmark, the Duomo, in the distance. Italian hospitality is legendry and dinner is a welcome treat on our first evening, provided by our hosts, Lorenzo and Alessandra. They leave us with a fine array of local food and a delicious tiramisu that could feed us for the entire week.

An early morning visit  to Florence enables us to visit the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery before the queues build up - the medieval bridge is particularly attractive in the early morning light.

The nearby Mercato Centlale unearths all sorts of treats. One of the world’s oldest covered food halls, located beside the Basilica di San Lorenzo, it has an abundance of traditional, seasonal produce for sale downstairs including fresh porcini and truffles while upstairs is a gourmet food court. Standout dishes from its food stalls include the bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak)  and Lampredotto, a sandwich only found in Florence and made of beef tripe served with a spicy sauce.

Hiring a car enables us to access other nearby towns and cities and enjoy the different regional specialities with ease. In Pisa an obligatory trip to the Leaning Tower is followed by a bowl of minestra di fagioli bianchi di San Michele, a hearty soup with white beans. In Siena, we walk around the medieval city before heading to the Piazza del Crunpo. There, we eat picialle briciole (a thick spaghetti cooked with thinly sliced, day-old Tuscan bread, chilli, salt, garlic, grated pecorino and good olive oil) overlooking the Palazzo Pubblico and its tower, Torre del Mangia.

Autumn is prime olive harvesting season -the nets, baskets and rakes all out in force. Typically, this takes place in November but in some parts of Tuscany, where cooler valleys are sometimes touched with early frosts, the harvest can begin as early as the end of September.

The freshest ingredients

The importance of a good olive oil is reiterated to us by Francesco Marrucelli, a chef who has come to teach us how to make Tuscan cuisine in our villa. Naturally, Marrucelli passionately believes that creating the food should be as much of a pleaser as devouring it.

He has scoured markets for the fresh­ est ingredients. We begin by delicately stuffing courgette flowers with ricotta and herbs followed by a pasta-making master class. The love, care and attention that is poured into making the fresh tagliatelle and the melt-in-your-mouth velvety texture that we later enjoy is enough to put us off buying dried pasta for life.

There are two ingredients that should never be scrimped on, Marrucelli informs us: olive oil and parmesan. He’s pleased when we can taste the difference between the quality produce he has provided from the market and what we had purchased from the supermarket.

Finally, we learn how to make a Tuscan grape cake, a treat for famileis at harvest time. Using canaiolo grapes from his family’s vines, Marrucelli creates what is essentially the best of wine and cake combined in one delightful, albeit rich, dish.

Later, we enjoy our Italian feast on the outdoor terrace looking down onto the twinkling lights of Florence below, clinking glasses of Chianti to our new friend. There’s a chill in the air but Tuscany has an innate warmth in both its people and its food that guarantees an enjoyable stay at any time. Just never more so than in the autumn.

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