A Visit with the “Kids” in Chianti

Radda is one of my favorite places in Chianti and it’s all about location. Radda is located 50 km southeast of Florence and 30 km north of Siena. On the see and savor map that means it’s well placed for day trips throughout the region visiting some of Chianti’s most storied villages and towns. Castellina in Chianti, Greve, Gaiole, Castelvecchi, Volpaia, Certaldo are only a few of the many postcard stops you can make along the way eating the food and drinking the wine that connects you to the historical landscape of medieval villages, still intact, set on hilltops with ancient walls that overlook the woods and vineyards of Chianti.

On my mind map, Radda is a place that connects me to artisan producers that are still committed to preserving the handcrafted traditions of the region. L’Azienda Agricola La Pensiola in Radda in Chianti is one of those places. It is here that Eugenia and “the kids” live and work. The “kids” I’m referring to are a herd of Cashmere goats husbanded by Nora, the owner.  In an era that has marked the destruction of the small farm and lessened the ability of artisan producers to remain true to their traditions L’Azienda Agricola La Pensiola remains a model for small-scale agricultural enterprise and a guarantee that MADE IN ITALY means all fine things Italian. With meticulous care and attention, Nora oversees the entire process that transforms the raw materials of wool into finished cashmere yarn used to make hand-woven shawls and scarves of unsurpassed quality.  Capra (goat in Italian) Eugenia and her family freely roam the Tuscan hillsides busily producing the milk and wool used to make skin care products and hand-woven shawls and scarves with production methods that go beyond organic using sustainable agricultural principles to renew and reclaim the land .

I spent an afternoon in the farm house kitchen at La Pensiola discussing the craftsmen and artisan producers behind the brand. Over un caffe’ Nora and I shared our thoughts on small business enterprises in the States and in Italy and what it was like to take a dream and a passion and make it into a life’s work.
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A Tuscan Dragon

Tuscan animal majolica from MontelupoCharlemagne, lanceolate, light green color, intense aroma –   descriptions of an encounter with a medieval Tuscan dragon? – No they are the gastronomic backstory behind dragoncello, the Italian word for the herb tarragon. Native to Central Asia tarragon spread west into Italy after the Crusades. Culinary historians write that the herb was brought into Tuscany by Charlemagne around 774 and then grown in the gardens of the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, near Montalcino. Charlemagne stopped near Montalcino on his return to Rome. His army was suffering from the plague and he decided to make camp when an angel advised him to collect a particular kind of grass and infuse it with Brunello wine (not bad medicine). The army was cured and Charlemagne built an abbey on the site dedicated to the martyred Saint Antimo.

Herbs such as menta (mint) and dragoncello may not be as familiar as basil and oregano when thinking of Italian cooking but the regional foods of Siena in Tuscany and certain parts of Umbria make liberal use of these aromatic herbs in dishes like cannoli di ricotta al dragoncello e pecorino (short crust pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, tarragon and pecorino cheese), gnocchi verdi alle erbette con menta e dragoncello (gnocchi served with a sauce made of mint, tarragon and parsley) and funghi porcini al dragoncello (porcini mushrooms flavored with tarragon). There is a popular Tuscan salsa called Dragoncello Sauce that is served with vegetables, fritto misto, beef, poultry and seafood. Certain regional olive oils are even described with grassy notes of dragoncello and sage.

You’ll need to travel outside the tourist flow to see and savor this side of Italy so make sure to look for local trattorie in towns like Colle di Val’ d’ Elsa, Siena, Artimino and Volterra. Here you’ll find profumato al dragoncello wafting through the air with delightful dishes that are particular to the region all without a fire-breathing dragon in sight.

*dragoncello means “little dragon” in Latin  thought to be named for the pungent flavor or for the herb’s serpentine roots

Torta Mimosa and Festa della Donna

In Italy bright, yellow mimosa is the symbol of Festa della Donna, International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.  Italian men buy bouquets of mimosa to give to the special women in their lives to show their support and appreciation for all they do.

Mimosa became the traditional flower for this early March celebration in 1946, to mark the first occasion of the holiday after the end of World War II. It was chosen because of its bright color and fragrant scent and because its blooms are a promise of spring. The tiny yellow flowers with fern-like leaves are bunched together in bright fluffy pompons and are the inspiration for a delicious Italian dessert known as torta mimosa .

This cake is somewhat difficult to make and involves several steps making a sponge, chantilly cream and a syrup.  The results are breathtakingly delicious but time-consuming. The  individual mimosa  flowers are created by dicing a part of the sponge in small pieces and placing them on top of the cake to simulate the look of a bouquet of mimosa.  The closest I’ll probably get to this cake on March 8th is on the web, eating a piece vicariously unless I can find a male friend who likes me enough to go through all the trouble of making it.  On second thought I’d be just as happy to get a sprig of mimosa.

Pesto Envy

Pesto. One of Italy’s most beloved and versatile ingredients. It can be used as a sauce or as a flavoring and like most Italian food there are regional variations based on local flavors that inspire and incite rivalries as deep as those of the Medici – Pazzi .

Each region of Italy favors a home-grown preparation, the most famous being the green pesto of the Ligurian Riviera. Considered to be the birthplace of pesto, the temperate Mediterranean climate along the Ligurian Sea produces a classic Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’) prized for its fragrant aroma and spiciness. The leaves are crushed with pine nuts, mountain grown garlic and salt in a mortar with extra virgin olive oil added until you have a creamy consistency. Grated cheese (half Parmigiano and half pecorino) is added and mixed well. In some areas pine nuts are substituted with almonds, pistachios or walnuts and parm and pecorino with ricotta or other cheeses. And here the divergence begins.
Farther south the pesto gets spicier and redder. A popular pesto in Sicily is made with fresh or sun-dried tomatoes. Sicilian pestos contain ingredients like capers, chilies, raisins, anchovies, fennel and mint creating a southern style pesto that is richer, thicker and spicier than their Ligurian counterparts.
Our Nonna was from the Northern Italy and our grandfather from the South. When the two sides of the family got together you better believe there was some pesto envy going on. Pesto alla calabrese looks nothing like the Northern pesto of our grandmother. Pesto alla calabrese, often described as pesto with a passion, is made with peppers and chili for a very robust sauce .
Nonno’s Pesto alla Calabrese
2 fresh whole red peppers
1 cup of Ricotta cheese.

½ cup of Grated Pecorino

½ cup of grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano

½ tsp of crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)

2-3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
salt and pepper to taste

 

Outside of Italy there are pestos made with parsley, peas, spinach and arugula, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds and macadamia nuts. I’ve even seen a pesto made with beets, broccoli and kale. I guess they all qualify as “pesto” as long as the ingredients are crushed; traditionally with a mortar and pestle “alla pesto” referring to the original method of pounding (pestare) or crushing the ingredients dating to the time of the Romans. Whether or not a cardinal sin is committed in making pesto in a food processor remains in debate; some say no true Genovese would use any device other than a mortar and pestle others find it completely acceptable. What most do say is that a good pesto has a creamy consistency with defintion between the ingredients and that size does matter. Young, freshly picked small leaf Genovese basil makes the best pesto.