Una bottiglia Chianti Classico, per favore,” I say to the impeccably dressed lady at the wine store.
Idyllic pleasures: (top) A bridge from the Middle Ages in Tuscany; a cafe on Via Guarnacci. Photograph: Arjun Rajappa
I am in a medieval hill town in Tuscany, Italy, shopping for groceries and wine. Today we have decided to take a break from hill-town hopping to enjoy Volterra, our home for the week. What better way to do this than to cook a meal put together with ingredients bought locally?
At the Piazza de’ Priori or town centre, the enotecas (wine stores) are open for business at 9am. They are well stocked with Chiantis, Brunellos from Montalcino, refreshing whites from San Gimignano, and more.
The woman at the enoteca smiles at my toddler, adding a sing-song “bella bambina” as she hands me the bottle of Chianti. All I can do is smile back at her with a “grazie”. I walk down the narrow, cobbled Via Guarnacci, lined with the dusty workrooms of alabaster artisans. At the cafés, a few locals are enjoying their espressos and cappuccinos. With Volterra still undiscovered, the busloads of tourists one sees in more popular hill towns in Tuscany are mercifully missing. Walking down the hill towards the farmhouse where I am staying, I see people going about their daily business, uninvaded. Children are playing near the ancient city walls, old men are sitting out in the sun.
Past the old Roman amphitheatre and the Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture), I walk by houses with little gardens, where artichokes are ripening in rows. Trees are heavy with apple, plum and orange.
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A group of frumpily dressed middle-aged women is heading towards a little panetica (bakery), and I follow them in. I’ve had enough meals in Tuscany not to be confused by the rustic breads. So I simply ask for the flat breads that will make good bruschetta, saying, “Du panini, per favore”.
The classic: Tuscany’s Chianti-producing region is called Lega del Chianti. Photograph: Arjun Rajappa
My third stop is at alimentari, the grocery. The cheeses, some of them highly odorous, baffle me. The caciotta or the pecorino? Perhaps the ricotta? Why not the marzolino? Pecorino, made from sheep’s milk right here in Tuscany, seems appropriate. In it goes! This is followed by half a pound of green olives, some pappardelle pasta and arrabbiata sauce.
I should leave, but I’m curious to know what the local ladies are buying. Cinghiali, or wild boar meat, is popular, as are the bistecca alla Fiorentina, beefsteak supposedly eaten very rare. Thin slices of carpaccio, or raw beef, are also flying off the shelves. So are the greens and the funghi, as well as garlic pods and peppers! I pick up some fresh greens for salad, crisp apples, a bunch of spinach to sauté with butter, and eggplant for the second course. By now my grocery bag is straining my arm; I’m ready to get back home and put the meal together.
As I walk down the steep hill along the ridge of the Le Balze, the dramatic ochre cliffside that forms the city boundary, I pass by groves where black olives are ripening. Before too long, I’d find out the taste of the freshly pressed olive oil.
Just before turning into our gate, I pass an adjoining terraced garden where a farmhand is working on tomato vines. Spotting us, he walks over with some ripe red pomodoros (tomatoes) and, with the by-now-familiar “bella bambina” to my little daughter, adds them to my grocery bag.
Back at the farmhouse, Inger, our Dutch landlady, comes in with some home-made tiramisu. Years ago, Inger and her Italian husband Massimo took up an old farmhouse and converted the granaries and stables into contemporary apartments that they now let out to vacationers. Married for a decade, she has picked up Italian cooking through much trial and error. With Inger’s help, the meal is a great success. We sit around the wooden table in the veranda, sipping our Chianti and downing the simple bruschetta I had prepared—bread topped with olive paste and drizzled with the very young local olive oil. The crusty bread tastes great dipped into the minestrone soup, simulating the popular Tuscan ribollita, a soup made of white beans, cabbage and leftover bread. The tangy, crisp green apples compliment the pecorino in the insalata, while the primi piatti (main course) of pasta with arrabbiatta sauce provides much-needed spice to our palates. The secondi of eggplant dipped in flour and fried, topped with pomodoro sauce and Parmesano-Reggiano, is a good vegetarian alternative to the steak.
We move on to the espresso and panforte (a sweet almond-flavoured hard bread eaten as dessert). As we gaze at the rolling hills, sipping our espresso, I remember the very apt words I’d seen on a trattoria:
To the Client: “Go to a trattoria religiously, like an artist goes to his studio”
To the Host: “Treat a client like a good guest, give him good food, and that’s it!”
To that I’d add, “Treat yourself well, as the Italians do. Cheers to La Dolce Vita!”
Graphics: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Trip planner / Tuscany
Volterra is about 90 minutes from Florence and about the same from Pisa. From Rome, Volterra is about 4 hours by road. Fly to Rome from Mumbai (Lufthansa round trip fares Rs35,000 onwards), Delhi (Finnair, from Rs30,000), Bangalore (Air France, from Rs40,000). A short-stay Italian visa costs Rs3,960. For details, visit www.vfs-italy.co.in
We stayed at the Podere Fraggina (www.fraggina.it), a converted farmhouse in a working farm in Volterra, for a taste of agritourismo. They have fully furnished
A partments with a kitchenette, dining area, and a sitting area in the front. Especially recommended for families with kids. A pool is available in the summer. Charges are around €500 (around Rs35,000) for a week. For more options in all budgets, visit http://en.agriturismo.it and http://www.agriturismo.net
There’s a lot of exotic game meat available in this part of Italy, so if you’re adventurous, you’re up for a good time. Visit an osteria for a meal of wild boar. Drink lots of local wine. Picnic in the vineyards of one of the many famous wineries that dot the region.