There are many ways to see and savor Italy. To experience the noble vineyards, pilgrim paths, iconic art and architecture and like the proverbial onion or tip of the iceberg you need to dig deeper and peel away the layers of “show and tell” travel to discover Italy beyond the beltway.
Travelers can follow itineraries along the Roads of Wines and Taste (le strade dei vini e dei sapori) in and around Italy to immerse themselves in the traditions, territories and tastes of a particular region. A behind the scenes, back road tour of the gastro-history of Italy to visit artisan producers and generational families committed to preserving the culinary culture shaped by the region in its geography and traditions. I have followed many of these routes over the years and highly recommend them.
One of the best ways to see and savor regional Italy is in the provence of Siena. Siena’s Duomo, Il Campo and Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall) have made Siena of the most popular places to visit when traveling in Tuscany. But if you’re looking to travel beyond the obligatory wine and dine sites of Siena there are a series of local itineraries that are worth “getting off the bus” or better yet taking the time to explore on a road trip through the region.
One little known itinerary consists of eight destinations that cross the lands of Siena into the “traces of transhumance”, a fascinating course of travel designed to express the value and worth of the paths once crossed by shepherds during the seasonal movement of their livestock. This time-honored tradition of mobile pastoralism gives you a true sense of the connection between the land and the artisan’s hand. Along the rural paths there are often rest areas, shelters, chapels, taverns and inns, hiking trails and scheduled festivals that create a historical itinerary of the food and cultural traditions of the region.
There are other trails of transhumance to discover throughout Italy including the Royal Shepherd’s Track, in Molise (considered for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and in Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania and Basilicata.
In the central valley region of Italy known as Tuscany there is a medieval town called Siena set within a landscape of the burnt sienna of a Renaissance artist’s paint brush. The colors of Sienese landscape are as rich and deep as the traditions and history of its people. Mario Batali once said that “nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the main piazza in Siena – nothing” and I definitely agree with him. However it can also be said that nothing can prepare you for the number of tourists that are milling around the main piazza (Il Campo) of Siena. Overlook it! Siena has become a brightly shinning blip on the tourist radar and like many of Italy’s more popular towns and cities can be a little overwhelming at first glance. Don’t let this keep you from discovering the medieval charm and delicious cuisine of Siena.
In Siena you can discover the Piazza del Campo (Il Campo), one of the most unique places in the world, where a square turns into a big concave shell. The paving is made of red bricks arranged in fishbone style, divided into a sunburst pattern by nine strips of travertine (in memory of the Government of the Nine, who ruled over the city from 1292 to 1355). And to remind the citizens of Siena about the benefits of a good government and the risks associated with one that is bad, there is a fresco (dal 1339) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted in the Sala dei Nove (Salon of Nine or Council Room) in the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall), an allegory, on the effects of Good and Bad Government. Scenes from the city of good government depict the virtues of Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance , Charity, Faith, Hope, Justice, Security and a landscape of plenty including a series of dancing citizens and activities relating to farming and animal husbandry. There is a Cinta Senese pig being lead into town, a symbol of the goodness of the land. In the contra fresco, the virtues have been replaced with Fear, Cruelty, Treason, Fraud, Fury,Tyrany, Pride, Vainglory, Avarice, Division and War. The village is deserted and uncultivated, houses are on fire and the pig is missing.
The plentiful abundance of Siena includes some of my favorite regional Italian food and wine. You must try the pappardelle col sugo di lepre (hare), ribollita (hearty vegetable and bread soup), pici (thick, chewy spaghetti), crostini di fegato (toast with chicken liver spread) Chianti Colli Senesi, Brunello di Montalcino and Vin Santo wines and Sienese sweets like panforte (a chewy fruitcake like confection) and ricciarelli (an almond paste cookie). Of course don’t forget to try the pork.
The Italian pig is revered. One of Italy’s most famous salumi comes in the form of cured hams known as prosciutto crudo. The celebrated hams of San Daniele, Parma and Toscana are so valued for their flavor, aroma and methods of preparation that they are given DOP aka PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification, the Italian government’s seal of approval that they are a product of a food tradition that can occur nowhere else. DOP certification sets out strict rules regarding the genetic make-up and breeding of pigs that will be wearing the ducal crown (the trademark of Prosciutto di Parma) or those whose hams are elegantly shaped like a Stradivarian violin (Prosciutto di San Daniele).
Porchetta, a suckling pig rolled up and spit roasted (girarosto) over a wood fire with salt, pepper, garlic and wild fennel has a gastronomic reputation that goes back to the time of the ancient Etruscans. Just about every sagra or street fair in Italy will have a porchetta on the spit with a line of Italians strung out waiting for packets of sliced pork (maiale) to eat on the spot or take home.
Signor Pig is treated very well in Italy. He was always respected as a symbol of plenty. The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt Pig (named for a white belt around their chest) is pictured in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzentti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall) titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo (the good/wise government). In the contra fresco il cattivo governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing and in the quarries of Michelangelo the cured lard of Colonnata (Lardo di Colonnata), with the intoxicating flavor of aromatic spices and herbs is an artisanal delicacy thinly sliced and served over warm Tuscan bread that can be described as nothing less than inscensual.
So when you’re seeing a savoring Italy make sure to arrange an introduction to Signore Pig at the local trattorie. He’s dressed in many ways (sausage, salami, prosciutto, arista di maiale) and although he may be called Stinco in Bolzano he is most congenial and not to be missed.
*You can make any piece of meat in the porchetta style along as you have roasted it in a wood fire oven and stuffed or even marinated or cooked with fennel (preferably wild)