|Montalcino, Southern Tuscany|
Friday after class, my pal Cosimo and his spouse Rebecca, picked me up for the two hour or so drive to Montalcino which is located about an hour south of Florence. That little bit of distance changes the cuisine completely. It changes from Florence to Montalcino, but not as drastically as from, say, Bologna to Florence. Cows in the former, sheep and olive trees in the later. So, of course, the cooking fat changes. And the emphasis on slightly richer dishes moves to a cuisine created by a more austere existence.
I’ve glummed onto Tuscan cooking precisely because it is so spare, simple, and still fantastically delicious. With a carrot, an onion, a stalk of celery ( called a gamba, or leg, in Italy!), a bit of tomato paste, a couple ounces of pancetta and a pound of beans, I can make an amazing Tuscan bean soup. Add some kale, some stale bread and smash it all together and you get a totally different thing. But in any case, remember to top each with a very generous thread of great olive oil. Yum.
We arrived in Montalcino after dark because of some terrible traffic between Bologna and Florence. But it felt so good to be home. The wonderful folks at the hotel popped open a bottle of nice bubbly from northern Italy (I’ve known these people for at least 15 years) and we just let the highway tensions fall away.
Montalcino is a funny place. It is a small town, about 5,000 people, which sits on a very high hill, ok, a short mountain (the name means hill of the oaks), and is surrounded by very productive agricultural land, mostly olives and grapes. The grapes are grown primarily for the town’s namesake wine, one of Italy’s top two or three reds, Brunello di Montalcino, a very solid red with lots and lots of body. So the region’s food has evolved to match the wines. In the past thirty years or so, Brunello making has matured such that these days, many formerly poor farmers are fabulously wealthy. Buy a bottle of Brunello in the USA—a decent one—and the price will be at least fifty or sixty bucks, and since this wine gets much better with age, a more desirable twenty-year-old bottle will run in the hundreds. It’s good stuff.
|Pancetta al Forno, Il Giglio, Montalcino|
For my last several visits, I’ve managed to have Anna, the brains behind the hotel, and an amazing cook, prepare a special local dish which is hard to find in area restaurants (though I was lucky enough to have it many years back in a little place you’ll read about below) called pancetta al forno. It is a large slab of pork belly seasoned with salt, pepper, a bit of garlic, a hint of rosemary and maybe a tad of lemon zest, which is rolled up like a jelly roll and slow roasted in the oven until much of the fat renders out, and the outside becomes a crispy golden brown. Holy moly, this is one of the best things I have ever eaten, and Anna is gracious enough to cook it up for me whenever I arrive. I think the pancetta she did on this visit was the best ever: it was perfectly juicy, tender inside and wonderfully crispy brown on the outside. And, yep, it goes great with Brunello, so Mario, Anna’s husband, picked out a great one for us to share.
There is very little auto traffic within Montalcino, the central historic portion is off limits except for residents, and so, it is easy to allow yourself to float back to another time—most of the towns buildings date to 1500 or earlier, some a bit later. After dinner and a walk around town, I sat on a bench in front of the hotel on the street that is barely ten feet wide, if that, and answered email, took in the smell of burning pine from a few hundred chimneys, and just sort of zoned out until after midnight. Though I was sitting right on the street, it was incredibly peaceful, even a bit awe inspiring. I was in heaven.
The first time I visited here in early December of 1995, I fell in love with it. No, actually, something clicked inside me which said, “I’ve been here before.” I’m not totally sure what that was about, though I have a few ideas. Whatever the source, the magnetic attraction was immediate and everlasting. I still feel that way. Guess I always will. It just feels like home. Comfortable. Easy. Mostly. I made a vain attempt after that first visit to buy a restaurant in the town so I would have a reason to move to Montalcino with my son. Obviously not meant to be, as they say, but I’ve returned many times, written about Montalcino for the Austin paper (back when they had a real travel section) and preach about it to anyone who will listen. Guess that now includes you!
Next morning it was off to the fairy tale restored abbey of Sant’Antimo, about six or seven miles south of town. It has been brought back to life by a group of French monks who are nurturing it back to health.
|Abbey of Sant’Antimo, near Montalcino|
They celebrate mass every morning in Gregorian Chant, they grow olives, grapes and other staples, they pray, what?, eight times a day?, they even record gorgeous CDs of their chant in the church which they package in elaborate books complete with wonderful photos of the place, all produced on the abbey’s Macintosh desktop system! On one of my first trips, I befriended the Chilean custodian who showed me some of the normal off-limits parts of the church like the former bishop’s quarters, the women’s gallery (it is a sort of second story to the church around one edge…women were not allowed on the main floor!), and the sacristy which was built in the late 700s and was at some point adorned with a bucolic fresco which has a hilarious depiction of two pigs screwing in the barnyard. I love it.
Lunch! This was at my favorite place to eat in the area, the very homey Trattoria il Pozzo in the little town of Sant’Angelo in Colle, a few miles from the church. It is sort of like a miniature version of Montalcino, also built on a hill—providing it with gorgeous vistas of classic Tuscan landscapes—remember all those beautiful Renaissance paintings? These are the backgrounds. Sant’Angelo has no traffic: just narrow lanes, 500-year old houses, and only about four or five active business, three of which are food-oriented.
|Pinci al olio, aglio e peperoncino, Il Pozzo, Sant’Angelo in Colle|
The dish I crave at il Pozzo. Wait, il Pozzo was the first place I had the above-touted pancetta al forno when it was run by Laura, a great cook I had a great crush on whenever I was in the area.
Ok, the dish I love at il Pozzo is called pinci al olio, aglio e peperoncini. Pinci are the local version of “spaghetti”, but they are hand rolled in the way we used to roll out snakes with clay in kindergarten. So the sign of a true handmade version is the irregularity of the rolling. One four or five inch snake will be thick, thin, thicker again, then thin. And they are a bit chewy, but not hard like al dente pasta, just chewy. They are a foil for a wonderful olive oil dressing which is spiked with lots of garlic and a little hot pepper. Absolutely perfect dish, and il Pozzo’s version of the pasta is the best I’ve had. Anna’s is good, but still comes in second!
Well, because il Pozzo also does other kinds of pinci, I had to go back for dinner.
|Cingiale on polenta, Il Pazzo, Sant’Angelo in Colle|
This time it was pinci al ragù, a heartier version of meat sauce than Bologna’s, but just as delicious. We also tried another local dish which was a wild boar (cinghiale) stew on top of some soft polenta. It was wonderful, but I just couldn’t eat much of it. Recommended nonetheless.
|Landscape from Sant’Angelo in Colle|
Espresso closed the meal, and it was served in some nice cups which were decorated with images of Siena, another place I love dearly. Since I knew the cups were provided free to the restaurant by the coffee company whose logo adorned them, I didn’t feel bad about asking the genial owner if I could have one to take home. She immediately wrapped one up and handed it to me. Wonderfully generous. Now, if they would just get free WiFi, this would be the perfect restaurant! Wait, it really is the perfect restaurant. Forget the WiFi!