Italy with My Son 2012 – Easter in Tuscany

The view from Monticchiello

Easter Sunday – I woke up before my alarm at 6:45 and spent time working on photos before waking my son and having a nice European style breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and pastries.

After breakfast, we drove to Sant’ Antimo where we visited the Abbey and stayed for some of the Easter Services. These were beautifully chanted in old-time Gregorian style. I always knew that Italians spoke with their hands, but I discovered that they can sing with them too. The lead priest “conducted” the crowd’s chanted liturgical responses with mellifluous hand movements. We arrived before the start of the mass. It was fairly crowded then, but by the time we left, the church was jammed with people and they were still arriving. It was a beautiful service that explains a lot of what made the church so powerful and influential. It was also fascinating to people watch the predominantly Italian crowd. There was young and old and it was instructive to note how differently they dressed. The young came with their families with the vast majority wearing everyday clothes with blue jeans being the standard. In contrast, the elderly, including those who struggled to get around (the church was not designed for the handicapped), wore their finest with men wearing suits and the ladies nice dresses. We departed once the crowd swelled to suffocating numbers.

From Sant’ Antimo we drove back past Montalcino, stopping briefly for some photos at Il Greppo, the Biondi-Santi vineyard, before continuing on to Bagno Vignoli, an old Roman and Renaissance spa town, where we had hoped to bathe in the thermal springs. We never did find where to hike to natural hot springs that the public could bathe in. We did find a hotel pool that was enticing, but by that point, our time was dwindling.

From Bagno Vignoli, we drove to Pienza to explore that famous Renaissance town built by Pope Pius II. Unfortunately, the day that had started so promising with a beautiful clear blue sky, clouded over and once we arrived in Pienza, it began to rain lightly. The temperature also dropped significantly, but we still managed to make our way through this atmospheric town. We stopped for a bite at a little bar and had tasty porchetta sandwiches and gelati.

Heading back to Poggio Etrusco, we stopped one more time – at Cugusi – the makers of a wonderful variety of Pecorino di Pienza cheeses. I purchased three different kinds to bring home to my wife, who became a big fan of their cheese from our visit to their farm back in 1998. From there we made our way back to the Poggio Etrusco to relax for what remained of the afternoon.

We had our Easter dinner at Osteria La Porta in the walled hilltop town of Monticchiello. It took a 15 minute drive, by Johnny Johns in the Johns’ van, to get there. In addition to Johnny & Pamela, we were accompanied by 3 newly arrived American guests, cousins of the Los Angeles chef, Evan Kleiman.

The town was charming, but small. The same was true for the restaurant. The 7 of us were given a table in the rear along a wall of wine. Every now and again, a server would come and retrieve a bottle from the wall for another table.

We had a special Sangiovese tasting to accompany our dinner from a set menu. As we nibbled on some local green olives marinated in olive oil and some piccante spices, we were poured a Spumante Franciacorte produced by Marchesi Antinori. Made from international grape varieties, it was produced using the Methode Champenoise and was fairly elegant and tasty for a nonvintage sparkler.

The meal proper commenced with a ricotta tart with pecorino cream and fresh sliced local white truffles from the spring season. Not quite as elegant as the similar dish served the prior night at La Grotta, it was nevertheless, well prepared and rather tasty with strong umami presence. This was paired with a lovely, young (2010), fruity wine from the local area, Morellino di Scansano, by Fattoria Le Pupille. This was made with a distinct Sangiovese clone and not kept in wood. At 13.5% alcohol, it was high for its type, but I still found it refreshing and a nice match for the “tartino.”

A 2009 Chianti Classico from Mazzei Tenuta di Fonterutoli (where the Chianti symbol of the gallo nero was born) led us into the next course. With each wine, we received a short discourse from the restaurant’s owner, Daria Cappelli. The Chianti was more full bodied than the Morellino without too much oak (old French barriques) and no higher alcohol content. It was a fine example of its genre. The course it paired with was my favorite of the night. It was a farro risotto with artichoke and saffron. The risotto itself was made with whole farro kernels, which made for a wonderfully chewy texture. The saffron flavor came through more than the artichoke, but there was enough of that to provide a nice accent.

Strips of grilled Chianina steak with simply roasted potatoes served as the main course. The Chianina had been cooked medium rare and had a nice, deep beefy flavor. It was served atop a sauce made with Vino Nobile wine, which just happened to be the pairing for the course. The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a 2007 from Lunadoro, was actually produced by Daria’s twin brother, Dario. She stated that she was very proud to serve it, and she should be, as it was a lovely wine.

Daria wanted us to play a bit with the cheese course. She served two cheeses from Cugusi. The first was a pecorino that had been aged in walnut leaves. This was a dry, but nutty and delicious cheese. The second was modeled after gorgonzola, but made with sheep’s milk. It was thusly named “peconzola”. It was soft and creamy. Served with the cheeses was local chestnut honey. This had a brilliantly complex barnyard flavor that was just wonderful. Daria instructed us to try the cheeses by themselves and with some honey and also to try each of these with each of two wines. The first was a deep red, a 2006 Brunello di Montalcino from Tassi and the second a Sauterne-inspired late harvest, botrytised dessert wine the 2005 Solalto fromLe Pupille, the same winery that made the Morellino di Scansano. Both wines were very nice and the combinations were instructive. The Solalto was a better match for both cheeses with the honey and the Peconzola without the honey. The Brunello was a lovely match and the better of the two with the unadorned pecorino.

We were given a choice of desserts. I chose a rice and ricotta cheesecake and my son had a tiramisu like pudding. He enjoyed his dessert very much. Mine was tasty, but a bit dry. It was spruced a bit by berries and a crème anglais.

On the return to Poggio Etrusco we enjoyed a rising moon, that like us, was just on the far side of full.

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