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Published: April 28th 2018
Morning view from my hotel window
The dream of Italy rendered in cloud
For today’s notes, I am sitting at a café in the main square of San Gimignano
, a town that was virtually abandoned from medieval times until about the 1970s. Now it is a fun, touristy town, with sellers of souvenirs lining the pedestrian road into the town square. Although in modern times all the houses are contiguous, originally they were separate towers with arched passageways. The stone buildings were famous because rich families built higher and higher towers until the town capped the height, which only enticed families build twin towers. Now it is all “in-filled” with brick houses (about one room across and three to four storeys high).
The Americans on our tour seem fairly familiar with the town - apparently there was a famous battle and a lot of bombing here in WWII. The town is built over an Etruscan aqueduct
- all the streets are faintly or distinctly arched. Even now there are many drains to catch rain water, once the source for all water.
Earlier in the day we had a splendidly drunken lunch masquerading as a wine tasting. We drove to San Verrazzano Castle
through the fabled Chianti hills covered in spring-tinted vineyards. The castle is magnificent, although
not walled. The present family has owned it for about 60 years, and wine has been produced here for over 800 years. Gino, one of the family who now owns it, was our guide. Michele called him a “philosopher of wine”. He was passionate and voluble. And I thought he made a lot of sense with his heart-felt explanations.
He led us through several subterranean stone cellars, telling us about wine-making in stories rather than by numbers. Then he took us to another cellar where the various types of Chianti were displayed and helped us understand their differences, based on what we had just learned. The most interesting to me was that “Reserva” wines come from keeping back some of the last of the wines from good harvests to be used to supplement years of bad harvest. The wine from the end of the season was used because it had the highest concentration of sugar and therefore alcohol and therefore it kept the longest. Over time the Reserva was also used for dowries.
As we finished the tour we walked past cellars with displays of olive oil in large (waist height) ceramic jars. Then up into the bright
sunshine, across the terrace with spectacular valley views, and into a spacious dining room with many long tables set for many tours.
Before lunch Gino led us through a tasting. Three ages of Chianti were poured: table wine (rosso), classico and reserva. He stated that all Chiantis from the region (controlled) are meant to be drunk when bottled and shouldn’t be kept beyond 5-7 years. He showed us how to look at the wine in the glass. The younger, less full-bodied wines are almost clear at the edges; in contrast, the heavier reserva is dark red almost to the edge. He explained why wines in the glass should be swirled vigorously to release the bouquet (and it does!) and incidentally to evaporate any remaining sulphites. When the food came, he asked us to check which wine went best with which foods. Indeed the heavier wines tasted better with the heavier foods.
Menu: Antipasto – 3 types of thinly sliced sausages including spicy wild boar, and prosciutto; Pasta – penne in red sauce: Main course – slices from whole roast pig, served cold with bibb lettuce salad; Dolce – cantucci (we call them biscotti) dipped in vin santo (dessert
Towers of San Gimignano
Quirk of history enchanting modern tourists
wine). Then they brought out grappa for us to taste, a herbal liqueur made from the final pressing of the grape paste. Not my favorite.
Then we went to San Gimignano. By the time we had free time there, I chose to sit on the terrace of a café and drink a pot of tea, watching the other tourists in the main square. Riding back in the bus I admired all the devices for hanging clothes to dry from apartments, and I also noticed that even small towns had medieval towers and fortifications which have been absorbed into current uses.
Ahead of us was a great evening experience. Lella Cesari Ciampoli (of the cooking school) was a member of the “Contrada” (parish or neighbourhood). An owl their animal symbol and red and black are their colours. She sponsored us to have a contrada dinner, which is like a church supper – all volunteer labour. Her husband, Marco, did the honour of hosting because she was busy. Arriving on foot in a hidden courtyard off a main street, we saw two long tables laid with cloths, plastic plates and regular glasses and cutlery. We were advised that the cooks
had just started boiling the water for pasta, so Marco took us to the contrada church and museum. The church was small, probably seating 100. There was a degree of ornateness and several paintings done by the same artist from the early twentieth century (if memory serves). The museum was more interesting, displaying about 20 Palio
banners from the times when the Owl contrada had won the famous horse race around Il Campo, over many centuries. (They last won in 1978, and they long for another win.) Also there were outfits from over the centuries for riders, groomsmen, drummers and flag bearers. Commemorative silver plates and armour were proudly displayed.
Back to dinner - a couple of beautifully mannered young men served us. Already at our places was a mixed green salad with a light oil and lemon dressing. Onto our plates, the servers spooned heaps of penne in a spicy tomato sausage meat sauce with finely chopped black cabbage – delicious! The meat course was white turkey chunks with a light, savory broth. Dessert was cantucci and vin santo again. We didn’t mind - this time the vin santo was passed around in a 2L bottle! View map of places visited.
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