Tuscany – You Have Reached Your Destination
The land of the dolce vita has a lot to teach us about living lazily. Tuscany is the most-loved Italian region for good reason. Over the centuries, the Tuscans have mastered the art of country living. Forget the frescoes and stifling museums in Renaissance Florence. I want to let myself off the leash in the summer heat. I want to follow the cypresses and sunflowers until the trail inevitably leads to an inn framed by vineyards. “You have reached your destination,” as the Sat Nav says.
Tuscany wraps food, wine and scenery into a seamless experience. The lifestyle is the greatest lure, with villa-living the ideal way of appreciating the countryside. Whether you wind through wine country in a low-slung Lamborghini or in a retro Fiat 500, it’s still about the sheer pleasure of the journey. The view takes in irresistible rolling hills, checkerboard vineyards and castle-topped hamlets.
I’m sampling a foodie tour of Florence and following my nose on a Tuscan wine tour. It promises to take in simple inns and superstar estates, from fashionista wines designed by the Ferragamo and Cavalli dynasties to wines serenaded by Sting and Andrea Bocelli. In tasting terms, the star should be Ornellaia, officially Italy’s finest (and priciest) wine, made by the Frescobaldi dynasty, who’ve been flogging wine since 1308. But first I face a load of tripe in Florence.
Once a fusty, museum city, Florence is now a foodie haunt, both for fussy gourmets and fans of giant T-bone steaks. New foodie tours are perking up the food scene. Even so, Florence is a fiercely masculine city, from its virile nude sculptures to its hearty, half-dead food. It’s all about wild boar, cow’s tripe and suckling pig washed down with full-bodied Chianti Classico. I’m not sure that Florence is for food wimps like me but one food tour promises to convert me.
My half-day walking trail with Eating Italy Food Tours munches its way through the Oltrarno, the bohemian side of Florence. Set on the far side of the Ponte Vecchio, this mellow district is homely not hip, and dotted with family-run inns and authentic arts and crafts shops. This relaxed Florentine food safari dips into favoured shops and bars for a taste of Florentine life – and tastings of tripe.
Against my better judgment, we’re soon tucking into cow’s tripe, a Florentine street snack. Known as lampredotto, it means the fourth stomach of a cow. The four stomachs are designed to break down all that grass. I’m already feeling queasy beside the Da Simone stall, a tripe hotspot on Piazza de’Nerli. Apparently, everyone from artisans to aristocrats gathers over a tripe sandwich to mull over Fiorentina’s footballing fortunes. Despite our reservations, the consensus is that the tripe is surprisingly delicious when drenched in a spicy salsa sandwich. So: not a load of tripe after all.
Tripe dispensed with, we call into Macelleria Mignani (Borgo San Frediano 127/r) for a tasting of fennel-infused salami. Then it’s onto Pasticceria Buonamici (Via dell’Orto 12/r) for cantuccini, the famous Florentine almond biscuits, baked by a father and daughter in front of us. We learn that Tuscan bread is made without salt because salt was once reserved for `precious’ foods such as salami. As good students, we’re rewarded with wine at Fiaschetteria Fantappe (Via dei Serragli 47/r). The glass of Chianti goes down well with the crunchy bruschetta slathered in chicken liver. Not that all Florentines are cavemen carnivores. For food wimps and fainthearted Florentines, the city offers rustic cheeses, bean stews, olive-oil drenched salads and crostini slathered in truffle paste.
The tour ends on a sweet note, at my favourite ice cream spot. Gelateria della Passera (Via della Toscanella 15/r) banishes memories of sickeningly additive-coated concoctions that so often pass for home-made ice cream in Britain. Here, the truly Tuscan flavours include chestnuts, honey and ricotta. Time to call it a day at Caffè degli Artigiani (Via dello Sprone 16/r), a neighbourhood café for coffee and cake. It’s a tripe-free zone, a peaceful square for chewing the cud with pals.
Time to head for the hills. The Tuscan wine trail colonises the slopes with vineyards, villas and wine estates. Led by the Antinori and Frescobaldi, the `princes of wine’ have ruled the roost since Renaissance times, commanding vaulted castles, rolling vineyards and retro-chic restaurants.
Marchese Ferdinando de Frescobaldi runs me through the family history over a glass of Ornellaia, the Super Tuscan Cabernet-Merlot blend. Every year, a limited edition of customised bottles of each new vintage are designed by a noted artist and sold by Sothebys, with all profits going to a major museum. Dubbed the Vendemmia d’Artista, this artistic collection is snapped up by wealthy wine collectors.
“Frescobaldi has been in the wine business since 1308, we’re a bit older than Antinori,” smiles the Marquess, as if 1385, Antinori’s birthday, were yesterday. Antinori remains the largest Italian fine wine company while Frescobaldi prides itself on its diversity and refusal to rely on grapes grown by others. As the Marquess is fond of saying, “Everything is from our vineyards. We never buy or sell grapes – the secret of great wine is in the vineyard, not the cellar.” The prized Ornellaia estate is in wild Maremma in southern Tuscany, close to the medieval hamlet of Bolgheri. From the patchwork of burnished vineyards stretch timeless views of towering cypresses and the coast, from the islands of the Tuscan archipelago to Corsica.
Instead, the Frescobaldi fortress is Nipozzano in the Chianti Rufina, where you can even stay on the wine estate. This is the dynasty’s historic base and one of their 11 estates. The cellars preserve a family tradition: when a baby Frescobaldi is born, wines are put aside from the year of their birth – 500 bottles for a boy but only 100 for a girl, a sign of shameless chauvinism.
The Antinori, peddling the `nectar of the gods’ since 1385, also welcome visits to their Florentine wine bars and Chianti estate in Passignano. The wine dynasty’s Osteria di Passignano is a Michelin-starred retreat in a brick-vaulted Benedictine monastery. Come here to sample Antinori’s Riserva, billed as `oaky with spicy sensations of cinnamon and candied fruit.’
Elsewhere, top stars sing the praises of Tuscan wines. Opera diva Andrea Bocelli produces wine on the Bocelli Wines family estate in Pisa province while superstar Sting sells his wine, organic oil and honey on his Tenuta il Palagio retreat between Florence and Arezzo. Sting’s wines often echo his song titles, with Message in a Bottle, a prized vintage, named after an old hit with The Police.
In Tenuta degli Dei, flamboyant Florentine designer Roberto Cavalli creates Tuscan Merlots at his wine estate and stud farm in Panzano in Chianti. The estate is mostly run by Cavalli’s son Tommaso, leaving his father to focus on his fashion empire. Wines include Chianti Classico and the odd vintage displayed in leopard-print bottles, a playful nod to Cavalli’s blingtastic fashion taste.
Finally, Il Borro wine resort in the Val d’Arno near Arezzo is like living the medieval dream – if medieval peasants also did manicured chic. Ferruccio Ferragamo, head of the Ferragamo fashion dynasty, has transformed a dilapidated estate into a slick wine resort. The 700-year-old estate comes complete with manor house, vineyards and medieval village, melded into a rustic-chic resort. With its geranium-clad cottages and geometric gardens, the resort resembles a set for a fashion shoot.
This Tuscan food and wine adventure leaves me with renewed respect for the locals’ sense of continuity. As Marquess Frescobaldi confides, “Wine is in our DNA. We are the 30th generation to work the land and this is our heritage to protect and pass on.” Don’t forget before setting off to have travel insurance in place to give you peace of mind on your travels.
For more on Tuscan food and wine adventures:
Ornellaia (“Super Tuscan” wine estate); www.ornellaia.com
Eating Italy Food Tours (Florence): www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com
To Tuscany (lovely villa rentals); www.to-tuscany.com
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel-writer blogging at www.lisagerardsharp.com
Header Image Credit: Lisa Gerard Sharp