What do celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and I have in common? Absolutely nothing until I spent a Sunday afternoon in late October drinking wine and sampling porchetta and salumi at Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti. Now I am part of a select confraternity of those whose motto is “meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista” translated to mean “it is better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist”.
This old Tuscan proverb only holds true if you are privileged enough to access and eat meat that according to butcher and shop owner Dario Cecchini have come from animals that have
- lived a good and healthy life with ample room to grow and thrive
experienced a humane and “good death”
- been processed by a good butcher who knows the right way to bring out the best qualities of the meat
- prepared and cooked by someone who in Dario’s words “can dignify the animal and all those whose labors led it to the table”.
Lofty and solemn words from an Italian butcher who is somewhat of a celebrity himself (Elton John, Sting and Prince Charles buy from him). So much so that Bourdain, never at a lost for a snarky comment, is at his deferential best when he visits Cecchini at his shop in Panzano.
My visit was much more chaotic. I was part of the Sunday afternoon meet, greet and tasting frenzy that surrounds an a gratis sampling of Cecchini’s work. Like attending a gallery showing of a famous artist, fans press through the doorway of the little butcher shop located on a side street off the main piazza. They are offered a wine pour of Chianti from a traditional Italian fiasco and upon entering jostle themselves to a sideboard for a sampling of traditional Chianti salami with wild fennel pollen, lardo made with olive oil, white wine, sea salt and herbs (which Cecchini calls Chianti butter) and Tuscan porchetta that is so good it will bring tears to your eyes.
The logical extension of attending Mass in Chianti on a Sunday morning would be to end up in Panzano in the afternoon. The views from the town are inspiring (Panzano has been called the Tuscan hill town with one of the most beautiful views of Chianti). The townspeople are warm and welcoming and a stop to sample or eat at Antica Macelleria Cecchini (there is a small restaurant next door with convivial tables ) is an uplifting experience that will make you realize the respect and reverence we should have for the food we eat.
The incensual aroma of herbs, meat, oil, wine and herbs wafts through Cecchini’s shop on my visit lingers into the late October afternoon. Cecchini spontaneously sings opera arias and quotes Dante. I pass by and glance at the master of Italian butchers. He smiles and gives me a kiss on the cheek. Some people call Tuscan lardo “Crema Paradiso” . I would submit that a trip to Panzano’s Antica Macelleria Cecchini comes as close to gastronomic heaven as one can be on earth.
I remember the first time I saw the chapel, from a distance in the middle of no where, on a road trip through Tuscany on my way to Pienza. I thought I had seen a mirage. I had to blink twice and rub my eyes. The view I saw had been photographed thousands of times yet it seemed like it could not possibly exist. An iconic picture found in almost every calendar or note card set about Italy that leaves you thinking there can be no place on earth that beautiful and yet here I was looking at it in real-time, in the flesh.
The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in Italy’s stunning Val d’ Orcia is one of the most photographed views in Tuscany. Built on a solitary hill against a sweeping panorama of agrarian fields and stands of cypress, the chapel once held a Renaissance statue of the Madonna sculpted by Andrea della Robbia in 1590. Recently classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta is an indelible memory of my travels in Italy and a sight that will forever define the landscape of Tuscany.
Click here to see some amazing pictures of the Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in San Quirico d’Orcia and Tuscany.
In Italian biscotti means cookie. Not just the long, hard, twice baked cookie with the curved top and flat bottom that most of us associate with the word but any cookie in general. The bis – cotti ( ‘bis’ meaning twice in Italian and ‘cotto’ meaning baked or cooked) that we’re most familiar with does exist in Italy with a long standing gastrohistory and a regional version known as cantucci.
The Renaissance bakers of Prato and Florence in Tuscany took the twice baked sustainable bread found in the kit of every Roman Legionnaire, (Pliny the Elder boasted that “such goods would be edible for centuries”) and elevated it to a culinary delight. Now the rather dry, pallid staple of nourishment for Roman soldiers and ancient travelers has become so popular that there are variations and permutations made all over the world. But the best interpretation is still found in Prato where Antonio Mattei, started making the now famous Biscotti di Prato dal 1858 known locally as cantucci.
Originally made only on Sundays, Biscottificio Antonio Mattei on Via Ricasoli, 20 transformed the making of biscotti into an art. Baked with all natural ingredients according to old world traditions, the biscotti of Prato have become a food ritual that continues today under the tutelage of Ernesto Pandolfini, a natural evolution with new flavor combinations like Pine Nut, Raisin and Chili Biscotti and Chocolate Pistachio Olive Oil Biscotti. If you want to serve a stellar Italian desert cookie, buy these. If you want to give an exceptional gift of taste, buy these. If you want to gift yourself a unique taste of Italy, buy these.
And like any cantucci a glass of Vin Santo for sipping and dipping would complete the experience.
Charlemagne, 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
A panel of travel experts from the National Geographic Society’s Center for Sustainable Destinations recently measured the worlds’ most iconic and celebrated travel destinations on how well they have weathered the pressures of mass tourism. 437 well-traveled experts rated 133 world travel sites on their ability to retain a sense of place, remaining relatively unspoiled in the face of mounting threats to their environment and culture. Tuscany, Italy was rated as a Place Doing Well stating that “If there is a region in Europe that exemplifies the exact mixture of natural and cultural heritage with harmony and beauty, it is Tuscany. No place else has this harmonious mix between landscape, monuments, and cities”.
At ItalyTasteandTravel we believe in there is a different way to travel in Italy, a way that is more than a “show and tell” tour, savoring rather than sampling all that Italy has to offer, traveling with a sense of place with like-minded travelers to see the Italy of our family and friends. We’re happy to know that one of our favorite regions to see and savor Italy is doing well. With more than 900 million worldwide travelers we are globally challenged to preserve and protect the culture, heritage and geographic character of sites we visit. To do less would be irresponsible. To do more would be a way to show your appreciation for a chance to see the wonders of the world.
On a recent taste and travel trip I stayed in the village of San Giovanni d’Asso, in the heart of the Crete Senesi. The Crete Senesi (pronounced KREH-teh seh-NEH-seh) is a rolling panorama of wind swept hills and isolated farmhouses south of Siena where you can find the road less traveled. It is the parallel universe of Chianti and attracts travelers seeking the elemental Tuscan experience. The rolling hills are dotted with cyclists and the woods that straddle the Crete and the Val d’Orcia are the perfect place to find the legendary tartufo bianco, Italian white truffle.
San Giovanni d’Asso is the home of the Museo di Tartufo, Italys first museum dedicated to the truffle and you will definitely want to visit the unique exhibits that allow you to get up close and personal with the prized fungus. There’s even an “odorama” exhibit that allows visitors to experience the heady aromas of dozens of different kinds of truffles.
Located in a 13th century castle, the museum is next to La Locanda del Castello, a country inn with an equally powerful effect on your senses. Your sense of taste, touch, smell and vision are all heightened by the atmosphere created by the owner Selvana, her son Massimo and innkeeper, Fiorella who make your stay at the inn very special. You arrive at the locanda piazza where a series of contemporary sculptures are on display then walk through the Castello drawbridge and into the castle courtyard. The intimate ristorante downstairs from the inn (very convenient) is rustic-Italian chic with a private veranda that overlooks the landscape of the town and valley below. When ordering, I would willingly take the advice of chef Enrico whose Nouveau Tuscan cuisine and artful presentation was fantastici . I ate a delicious pici pasta with cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) one night and another night wild boar ragu’ that was both delicate and bold. The caprese salad and assorted salumi included Lardo di Colonnata, a protected Tuscan delicacy that is particular to the region. My room was decorated with 19th century Italian country furniture combined with touches of French toile fabric to create what I would imagine to be the style of day when traveling from locanda to locanda.
My final day in Tuscany was spent at a terme. Terme is the Italian word for thermal waters. Popes, pilgrims, princes and everyday Italians have traveled to these natural hot springs seeking the beneficial virtures of the waters to regenerate the body and mind since ancient times. On last year’s trip I got “my feet wet” at Bagno Vignoni, a small medieval town south of Siena. This year I would go Terme Antica Querciolaia near the town of Rapolano Terme. There are other popular termes in Italy; Montecatini and Saturnia come to mind that are more tourist oriented, but I like to travel like an Italian so this type of terme appeals to me. It is small, family oriented (yes, Italian children come with their parents) with 3 large pools rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. I spent one memorable afternoon in September languishing in the thermal waters of Antica Querciolaia under the Tuscan sun knowing that this was another reason why Italy is the best place on earth.