Wonderful trip to Tuscany!

Castellina, Chianti

Last February, my angel had given me a 3 day trip to Italy.  I had the choice between three different ones actually, but the one we chose was to Tuscany, Italy.  I have been in Italy two times before, but these were further two the south, Milan and Rome.  I must say that the southern part of Italy does not really hit home with me, as things are fairly hectic but we had heard a lot of good things about Tuscany, so it deserved a chance in our books.

We woke up extremely early and checked in at Arlanda, then we sat down for a breakfast and prepared to the flight to Amsterdam.  The breakfast was fantastic, Swedish meatball sandwhich, some Latté as well as some homemade yogurt (yum).  Charlotte realized that she had forgot to take any bathing suit with her and she was “forced” to buy a new bikini.

Half an hour later we were on the plane which was slightly delayed due to heavy fog in Amsterdam, the trip was fairly good despite quite a bit of turbulence.  In Amsterdam we only had half an hour to run to the gate, but when we arrived there we realized that the flight to Italy had been further delayed.  So we had some time to walk around, had a look at some of the Dutch specialities like big chunks of chocolate, tulips and huge Amorilis bulbs.

An hour later we were finally on our way to Italy and landed in the afternoon at Firenze’s airport which was surprisingly small.  There we met Leif, our guide for the trip along with the rest of the group members (which was actually quite an interesting blend, both in terms of types and ages).  A bus was waiting for us along with the driver, named Bruno who was an older italian gentleman.  We boarded the bus and went on our way to Castellina in Chianti Sienna, where we were going to stay for the next three days.  What first strikes you about Tuscany is the beauty of the landscape which is absolutely stunning.  The hilly landscape, the variety of trees and plants and of course the acres and acres of wine and olive trees.

Within 40 minutes we were dropped off at Castellina and checked into the hotel.  As we were fairly hungry we decided to head out and find a restaurant.  There were not many restaurants in the small city (we counted three) and it only took us 20 minutes to walk around the town and see most of the sights.  We ended up picking the Pizza place outside the hotel where we had decent italian pizzas.  At the restaurant I tried out the panorama feature on my new Sony camera, which was fairly good apart from when someone is sitting too close to you, as you can see in the picture below 😉

After devouring the pizzas we met up with the guide and the rest of the group where he took us to the same places we had wandered to as well as a tomb on outskirts of the city, after venturing into the tombs we found a fig tree which we picked dry.  If you haven’t had fresh figs, I highly recommend you to do so, delicious.

On the way back we visited a few stores, some actually had wine dated back to 1800s, I wonder how that would taste like 😉  In the evening we had dinner at the restaurant “Tre Greves” which was fairly good, good rustic italian food accompanied with a quality Chianti Classico “Castello Di Ama 2006”.  In a traditional style we had four dishes, starting with L’antipasto or cold cuts of ham, cheese, next came Il primo, which was pasta with the local sheep cheese named “Pecorino” which was fantastic, next in line was Il secondo which consisted of beef loin with rosemary potatoes and lastly we had Il dolce or dessert.  I found the dessert menu pretty funny as I could order “a hot Charlotte” which I just had to try.  This was a typical Icelandic “rúlluterta” which had been heated up with vanille sauce.  No one could understand why I thought the name was funny as people did not know Charlotte’s name at that point in time.

Now we were getting fairly tired so we decided to go back to the hotel and have a good nights sleep, on the way back to the hotel, I decided to try the camera out in a low light setting and I felt that the results were fantastic, as you can see below.

Vignamaggio, Chianti

Oh boy, we woke up realizing that we only had 20 minutes to shower, eat breakfast and get ready for today’s wine tour of Castellino di Vignamaggio, the birthplace of Mona Lisa.  As always we managed and were on the bus on time.  Everyone seemed in good spirits with wine tour and tasting in a stunning italian weather.  Charlotte was a little bit worried about the walkabout that we were going to go on, but the plan was to have a 10km walk later in the day.  After an hour’s drive we arrived at the castle where everyone got off the bus, well except for the driver 😉

I must say, that the place looked absolutely magnificent, the first harvest was being harvested, or the Merlot grapes which are one of the first to ripen.  People were working at the sorting machines which was more work than usual as quite a bit of mold had fastened to the grape due to extremely wet summer.

We met our guide which had been working at the winery for the last 3 years and he took us through how the wine goes from the grape to the bottle or so to speak.  I felt that the production at this winery was very personal and everyone was extremely charismatic, people working the winery were smiling and laughing which gave positive wibes to everyone.

So how without any jargon, let me explain how wine is created.  To begin with you must have a good arable land, preferably hilly which can hold the right humidity in the ground through the summer.  This can be done by shaping the land creating platform which is like a staircase which has the sole purpose of keeping the water for a period of time after it rains.  Whether is of course out of your control, unless you are good at sun- or rain dancing.

The vine plants need to be planted in early spring and they do not come cheap €2.5 per plant but they give you around 2 bottles of wine each.  A rose plant need to be planted at the end of each line, keeping unwanted bugs away from the vines but there are always other dangers, such as wild boars or other animals that also want to have their share of the grapes.

Each plant has to be visited around 7-8 times over the summer, by various personal, cutting leaves off the vines, checking the grapes for sweetness or acidity and to check for mold or other diseases.  Then when the right balance between acidity and sweetness has been achieved, the grapes are ripe for picking.  The grapes can be either picked by machine or by hand.  The latter method is usually chosen when better wines are going to be produced.

After the grape clusters have been picked they go through a sorting method, this is usually done by hand and all damaged or bad grapes are cut and thrown away.  The clusters then go into a machine which picks the grapes off the stalks and removes them.  What is left is the basis for the wine making.

The base is then poured into big tanks where the blend goes through it’s first fermentation, the blend warms up and it has to be kept in order in terms of temperature, with Chianti it has to be kept below 30 degrees.  This is done with an external cooling system, through this process the mixture of skins and grape stones are constantly blended into the liquid as the skins give the color to the wine.  The wine stays in the tanks for two weeks in the first fermentation process.

The second fermentation process happens in a cooler environment or around 17 degrees.  Through this process the wine is kept for another one or two weeks depending on the wine type.  When the second fermentation is finished the wine is then put in barrels where it stays until it is ready to be bottled.   At the top of each barrel is a device, which was invented by Leonardo Da Vinci.  The device lets oxygen out of the barrel but not in.  This is imperative as oxygen cannot mix with the wine at any point through the aging process.  The cheaper wines are usually put in bigger barrels whereas the more expensive are usually put in French Oak barrels where it ages.  Then 2-3 years later the wine is ready for bottling and subsequently drinking 😉

I hope I haven’t lost you at this point but the process is actually fascinating, but not as fascinating as the wine tasting itself.  Vignamaggio is an astonishing property and it did not surprise me that it was the birthplace to Mona Lisa who lived there for many years or until her family became bankrupt and needed to move away from this fantastic place.

he gardens are astonishing as you can see on the pictures above, but the “Much Ado about nothing” was actually filmed here starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and more.  But now for the tasting.

Nothing was spared in the tasting, quality bread, Piccarino cheese, antipasto and of course wonderful wine.  The Vignamaggio’s wines are wonderful and worth looking up at your local specialist.  We bought their Chianti Classico Reserva which we felt was outstanding as well as their local produced olive oil.  At the tasting we were also introduced to the local dessert wine called, Vinsanto del Chianti Classico which you dip almond cookies into, yum!

It was a good spirited and happy group that left the wine tasting and headed out to Panzano for lunch.

Panzano, Chianti

After a fantastic wine tasting everyones spirits were up, so we decided to head out for lunch in the small village of Panzano.  In Panzano we visited a great local restaurant which of course offered a number of delicacies, their own brewed beer and speciality hamburgers.  We shared a long table with few Americans and were served by one of the creative and funny waiters that I have seen.  Not only serving food and drinks while smiling and laughing, but also by acting and playing around with the guests.  The food was of course delicious and we exited the establishment ready to walk through the Tuscan landscape.

As we were waiting in front of the restaurant, few of us sneaked into the next local store to buy some Gelato while others got expresso to freshen up post dinner.   Then we started to walk, the path was one of the most beautiful I have travelled, very hilly again but walking through this beautiful landscape, eating grapes directly from the vines, good company as well and listening to some quality Crooners off my iPad made this a truly magical experience.

On the way we crossed a small creek as well and a small orchard.  We also saw quite a bit of animals including my first snake, impressive how they divide the grass when they crawl through.  It was not long until we came to our half-way destination which was the small town of Greve.

In Greve we stopped for a quick refreshment at a local pub which specialized in carrying a wide variety of different ales and beers.  Amongst other things I saw “Rasputin” a beer originated from Russia 😉  Almost everyone had a cold one except for the Germans in the group which I thought was remarkable.

But we had only walked half the way, so we decided to hurry along so we would get to the Swedish Vineyard before nightfall.  It was a fairly tired group who reached the destination around six o’clock only to be disappointed with the Swedish Vineyard, sure it was beautiful (Italian with Swedish Efficiency) but the wines and the dinner disappointed the whole group.  This was clearly demonstrated through the fact that no one bought anything at their store.

The best thing about the vineyard was that the guide told us about how the vineyard came into Swedish ownership.  To make a long store short, an italian widower fell in love with a woman from Firenze named Biffolini.  She was accustomed to wear high heels on the cemented streets of Firenze and demanded that the vineyard would have such streets made.  The italian widower made his choice and decided to move to Firense instead 😉

Castello di Brolio, Chianti

On day 3, we woke up pretty early as we had decided to pay a visit to the local market.  When we came down to the lobby, we met Leif who told us that he had arranged for a cooking class for us, as we had specially requested.  Both me and Charlotte were extremely happy about that and were looking forward to the evening already. It was chilly outside and Charlotte realized that she did not have any sweater with her.  So after breakfast we headed out to the local market.  We found a sweater but not much else at the market, which Charlotte was very happy with and this fantastic Salami, I wonder what bread goes best with it?

I also managed to take fantastic pictures at the local herbs sales stand which I am thinking about  using as a decoration for our kitchen 😉

After returning from the market we boarded the bus with the group and headed out for our third wine tasting tour of Castello di Brolio.  The palace has wonderful history, it has always had strategical military importance for Firenze, as the view from the palace is unrivaled.  From there you could see approaching armies miles away.  Therefore Firenze has always funded the maintainance of the castle.  In the castle, the Ricasoli family (the oldest family in Italy) has lived there for generations, despite the fact that the castle is only used currently as a summer house.

The most famous member of the Ricasoli family was Bettino Ricasoli (1809-1880), or the Iron Baron.  He was one of the founders of modern Italy, statesman who was extremely close to the king, talented artist, media mogul and scientist who amongst other things invented the original formula for the Chianti.  During the visit we looked at the Castle’s chapel, some of the Castle’s bedrooms and museum.  We were not allowed to take any pictures in the castle though.  During the visit Charlotte felt something stroke her back while we were in the so called “King’s bedroom”, which was a room that had been specially decorated to the honor of the king.  When she turned around there was no one there though, so she did not give it a second thought.

Next on the agenda was a tour through the Brolio winery which was the biggest of the three that we had visited.  They produce roughly 2.5 million bottles per year and I must say that their facilities were astonishing.  Just look at their resting function in the picture above.  Next up was the tasting itself, which was in an unrivaled setting.

We tried three of their wines, Chianti Classico 2005, Albia Rose 2009 and Casalferro 2005.  I must say that these were the best wines of the trip, what a fantastic selection of wines and it is a shame that Casalferro won’t be produced any more.

After the tasting the group had a picnic close by and as the previous morning everyone were in perfect spirit.  Afterwards we had a coffee at a local restaurant, where Ulf from Umea had some Sambucca and rambled on about how cheap everything was 😉  After the coffee, people started to ask us what we were going to do that night as it was a free night.  We said that we were going to a cooking class which made people a little bit upset as everyone wanted to do that as well.  Leif, the guide vanished for a while or until the discussion had calmed down a little bit and then we headed out for a walk in the village.

After an uneventful trip on the bus to Castellina in Chianti we were back at the hotel around six o’clock all fresh and ready to go.  We took a short walk through town where we bought a real chef’s hat, an olive wood cut board, parmesan grater, three small bowls, dried purcini and almond cookies to go along with our dessert wine.  Back at the hotel we met Paola, our hostess for the night and headed out to her summer cabin in the countryside in her tiny Fiat.

The cooking course is designed for smaller groups or 2-6 people and we could understand why, because there is no way you could have fit more people into the premises 😉  Paola was fantastic though and the course was extremely personal and enjoyable.  During the evening we cooked 4 dishes, vegetable terrine, broccoli pasta, pork medallions in wine&vinegar sauce and Panna Cotta with wild berry sauce (Yum)

Each dish better than the other and as always we picked up few hints and tips off Paola, who has over 15 years of experience from the italian restaurant business.  The beauty of the italian cuisine is it is so simple to make and extremely good to eat 😉    We would highly recommend the course for anyone who finds themselves in the neighborhood but more information about the classes can be found at www.cooking-sommavilla.com.

During the dinner, Paola asked us what places we had visited, which we told her.  When we started to discuss Brolio, she asked us whether we had seen the Ghost of the Iron Baron, which supposedly roams around the castle.  People have both seen him and felt him numerous times … something that the tour guide had forgotten to mention.  Upon hearing this Charlotte became white in the face and later during the evening she told me about what she felt at the castle …. spooky ;)After the course, Paola drove us back to the hotel where we fell quickly asleep after a long day, despite the ghost stories …

Firenze, Siena

Last day in Italy, boy the days have gone extremely quick by.  We woke up fairly early, but as we had packed the day before there was no hurry though.  We had breakfast and checked out of the hotel and joined the group in the bus.  Today the destination was Firenze or Florence.  As we approached Florence, I felt I had been in the city before, but I soon realized why … when Kristjan was with us this summer we played Assassins Creed II together on the Xbox360 and one of the cities which you play in is Firenze.  Therefore all the historical buildings were vaguely familiar as well as the layout of this magnificent place.

The city is quite beautiful, we stopped in few shops, I bought a leather jacket and a hat, while Charlotte browsed the women departments.  I wanted to find an old italian cooking store, but they were either closed or nowhere to be found.  After an hour we decided to end the trip by having a nice lunch, which we surely did.  We usually manage to find a nice restaurant next to the cathedral where we had a Pork Chop and a Pizza, along with a nice Rosé and a cold Limoncéllo in the end.

After a fantastic lunch, we headed out to see the cathedral but our guide was nowhere to be found.  We used the time to visit few art vendors and ended up buying a beautiful watercolor picture of Firenze as you can see below.

All of a sudden we stopped in our tracks where we saw a familiar jacket, and even more familiar shoes and sunglasses.  Surely this had to be our guide, but what was he doing cuddling, kissing and fondling that redhead that was sitting next to him on the bench, could she be the reason why he decided to split up the group ….  well I guess that Paris is not the only romantic place around 🙂

Once in the cathedral we saw Michaelangelo’s ceiling which was about it.  There was not much to see and I was personally quite disappointed as it looks magnificent from the outside.  Later on our way to the bus, we had some Gélato and said our goodbyes to Italy for now ….

2010-10-8 – Trip To Tuscany 2010

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