Monday, September 7, 2009

Tuscany Day 3: Paradiso

We woke up the next morning thinking, "What were we thinking?" A meat fest four hours before a wedding is usually not a good idea. We re-read the menu, and panicked a little more. See, the menu:

Officina Della Bistecca

Brustico di sushi del Chianti (Beef "sushi" on the grill)
Costata alla Fiorentina (Bone-in Rib eye)
Bistecca Panzanese (Panzanese steak)
Bistecca Fiorentina (T-bone steak)

Pinzimonio di verdure dell'orto (Garden vegetables with olive oil)
Pane rustico e focaccia (Bread and focaccia)
Fagioli all'olio (Tuscan beans and olive oil)
Patate e cipolle al cartoccio (Baked potatoes and baked onions)
Burro del Chianti (Chianti "butter")

Vino Mio (House red wine)
Acqua Liscia o con le bolle (Water with and without bubbles)
Torta all' olio (Olive oil cake)
Caffe alla moka (Coffee)
Digestivi dell' Esercito Italiano (Italian Military Liquers - "the reason why Italy lost all its wars!")

Still, we decided this would probably be the only time in our lives we would have four steaks before a wedding in Tuscany and thought that, at the very least, it would make for a good anecdote. Onward to the good fight!

The meal at Dario's did not disappoint, and honestly, I still wake up after dreaming sweet dreams about it. The Bistecca Fiorentina, in particular, is the best steak I've ever tasted. Ever. (Sorry Peter Luger, you have been dethroned!)

The most wonderful thing about this meal though was its simplicity - no big sauces or purees, and nothing that required more than baking or grilling. The meats were the main star here, to show that all you need is a good butcher, really. Here is a picture of the meat before grilling:

One of the assistant butchers paying homage to the steaks:

The superstar butcher himself, Dario, cutting up the steaks (by the way, before cutting up the steaks, he quoted a few lines of poetry, which suspiciously sounded like a few lines from Dante's Inferno. However, he ended, for our benefit, with a thunderous line in English: "To Beef Or Not To Beef!"):

Chianti "butter" (pork lard - yum! but took only half a teaspoon; I need to lose weight):

And my favorite side dish for this meal, Tuscan beans:

We were in a major food coma, but somehow we made it back to the villa for the wedding, with time enough to spare for a shower and a blow-dry. The wedding was one of the loveliest I've ever been to - the garden, the scenery the weather, the people all came together to make it unforgettable. Here's a faraway shot of the beautiful bride TS, being escorted down the aisle by her father:

The food was superb as well, and believe it or not, I was able to eat two pastas and one more steak that night. I only had one gelato for dessert though.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Tuscany Day 2: The Little Car That Could

L and I had the brilliant idea of biking around the hill towns of Chianti on Saturday, and we were very much game until 7:36 a.m. By 7:37 a.m. the temperature had reached about 35 degrees, and looking out over the ridge that morning we realized "hilly" meant NO flat surfaces; a bike ride was going to have us peddling up and speeding down. We did not have the foresight to rent a car, nor did we have the inclination to bathe by the pool all day, so we conditioned ourselves to spend the day just sitting under a cyprus tree, reading, with a nice bottle (or 5) of Chianti Classico.

While trying to contemplate whether I could read my almost finished book slow enough so I would have something to read for the rest of the trip, a guy we met at a dinner party one chilly spring night, BB, walked up to our table. "Hi", he said, "it's great to see you guys here. I have a tiny little car and was planning on seeing the little towns in the area today. Want to come?" We finished our croissants and slurped our (delicious) cappuccinos down in ten seconds, and we were off. (Thanks again, BB!)

It was great. We drove a while, saw a little town that looked interesting, got down to look around, got back into the car, and repeated the sequence about 7 times. And, wow, look at some of what we saw:
The highlight of the day however, however, was an extremely accidental find. L and I read an engaging book called "Heat" by Bill Buford a couple of years ago. The author was a writer for the New Yorker who wanted a change in career and so he trained as a chef. He had many anecdotes, but the story that stuck was about a butcher named "Dario" from a little town in Italy - an energetic, knowledgeable and quite revered character known all throughout the Tuscany. Anthony Bourdain, a few years later, devoted a large part of his show on Tuscany to this same butcher, and he had (quite predictably) had nothing but great things to say about him.

So imagine our surprise, when, while walking around in a little town we discovered was called Panzano, while on a pit stop for lunch, we saw this:
and we started being filled with warm-fuzzy feelings. Dario had a restaurant serving lunch with only two entries on the menu: a set menu with a burger, and a set menu with a couple of unknown meats. We had lunch there, of course.

Voila, my mouth watering half pounder burger steak, served with the most delicious "ketchup" ever - they pureed their own Tuscan tomatoes to make it:

L and BB had the unknown meats, which turned out to be nothing short of spectacular: "Tuscan sushi", which is the best steak tartare on the planet earth (at least those parts I've been to) and "Tuscan tuna", pork that was brined and pulled to look and taste like really, really, really good tuna.

All dishes were served with raw vegetables, and this was quite a revelation as well - a dip of herbed salt, olive oil and red vinegar makes the vegetables better than french fries!

We were reluctant to leave the Butcher's shop, but we decided we had to tear ourselves away in order to make it back to a wine tasting in Badia organized for the wedding party. We decided to go down to the butcher shop for a last look before leaving, and got excited about an "Ode to Meat" menu they had for the next day. Still in carnivore mode, we decided to go to that and made our way to the butcher shop to make a reservation. Sitting there was Dario, who was himself manning the shop. He took our reservations, and he gave me a nice jar of herbed salt as a gift. Grazie!

Tuscany Day 1: Chianti and Fonte de Medici

Oh, Toscana!

It's hard to write about Tuscany without using superlatives, which, I realized, I have been using all too-often for this blog. But, really, how can you not? I can perhaps complain about the heat, or the dust, or the millions of tourists doing the same thing we were doing, or maybe the one or two snooty locals we encountered, but really, I can't. Toscana was pretty enough to want to pinch, to eat, to smell, to hug to yourself while shouting, "Mine!"

But I am getting ahead of proper blog story telling.

L and I were scheduled to attend a wedding of two friends in Chianti Classico, in the north of Italy. When we realized that fabulous friend CC would be with us in The Hague at that time, we took full advantage of the situation and got her to travel with us for a week and half all over Tuscany. Being fabulous and fun, CC of course said yes.

After a two hour flight to Florence and a short cab ride to Santa Maria Novella train station, CC bid us a temporary three day adieu - L and I were to travel to the heart of Chianti Classico for the wedding and CC was to travel to Milan and Lake Como. We were to meet back in Florence after 3 days.

It was a Friday, and the wedding was to be held on Sunday. We were staying at a villa called Fonte de Medici in the middle of Chianti country.

Lunch was light, just some prosciutto e melone for me, and a pasta for L:
The rest of the afternoon was spent checking out our hotel, and walking around the vineyards and olive groves around it:

L was in some sort of trance, and actually considered using his facebook status for the first time ever (he wanted to type in: L is in paradise), but he decided to start trying the wines instead. Here are pictures of (sigh!) dinner: