A student’s account of Tuscany

Training at Fifteen Cornwall isn’t just about the cooking for our apprentices. Quite often they’re out of the kitchen on educational sourcing trips. We thought it was about time you heard from the students themselves so apprentice James Cuthill kindly wrote his own account of the Tuscany Trip in 2011.

From the time we landed in Pisa, it was clear that Italy wasn’t just going to be a culture shock, but a pleasant temperature shift; 20oc in the daytime.

After hassling one of the airport’s fast food counters for twenty four various breads with cheeses and cured meats, we made our way to the coach and met up with Nigel and Fran, our guides from Liberty Wines who explained our itinerary for the coming days.

The depth of colour in the landscape as we made our way from Pisa to Rufina was truly breath-taking. There were deep terracotta reds, burnt oranges and shimmering silvery greens from the olive groves flashing past in the afternoon sun. The hills were studded, with villas in a million shades of their surroundings, looking out over golden vineyards stretching into the distance. Until we reached the Selvapiana Estate, it truly seemed better to travel than to arrive.

The whole group was captivated by the sun setting behind the hills as we descended from the coach but there was no time to dwell on this as our host came out to meet us from the  15th century Selvapiana villa. The property, owned and run by Fredrico Giuntini Masseti, has been in the Giuntini family for five generations, since 1827. The most prized was vineyard on the south western facing slope where the vines received more sunlight than the rest of the crop. They grew the Sangiovese grape used in the Chanti Classico wines, synonymous with Northern Tuscany due to the cool breeze.

First we went into where the fermentation vats were stored in a large open outhouse. The air smelled of vanilla, wood and strong alcohol. We were told that after the grapes are picked they are transferred into these tanks and pressed. The pressing is done by two large mechanical ‘feet’ within the vats. The amount of pressings depends on the decision of the wine maker, but it is more frequent at the beginning of fermentation to encourage the sugar to react with the natural yeast. None of the producers we visited added yeast to their wines. After a few months the grape skins and pulp would rise to the top of the vats, where they are removed and distilled for grappa or put back into the soil as fertiliser for next year’s crop.

Next we made our way into the wine cellar where there were bottles dating back to 1953. This is also where the wine is transferred to huge oak barriques to continue its fermentation process and take on characteristics from the wood. The type and age of the barrel will determine the colour, flavour, tannins, profile and texture of the wine.

Then we went up into the dining area of the house where we were seated and invited to try three different Chiantis and a sweet Vin Santo dessert wine along with the October and November pressings of olive oil. With the direction of our host and the explanations of the Liberty wine experts, I was able to pick out some of the more subtle notes on my palate. Once we’d finished up it was time to board the coach again and head to where we were staying that evening.

We arrived at the Petrolo estate as dusk was moving to the light of a full moon and walked steadily up the half kilometre to the villa, as the bus couldn’t make it. We didn’t know what to expect and as we entered the villa just kept expanding with spacious rooms and incredible antique  furniture, art and decoration. Scents of what was to come for dinner filled the passages.

We were lead out by the wine maker, Stefano, to where his barriques were kept. His process differed slightly to the one we had seen earlier at Selvapiana, the barrels and the wood types were newer and smaller. There was a large stopper in the top of each so that the wine could be oxygenated manually, if required. Also all the barrels were mounted on rollers so that they could be turned, allowing for the oxygen to be dispersed around the wine. We also got to see the bottling and labelling machine, which looked very expensive.

After this we came up to a large room for a tasting of Petrolo’s two flagship wines the Galatrono and the Torrione, both wines were from different vintages, 2007 and 2008. We got to taste and check how the wines differed between the years and what to look for within the flavours.

As we made our way back in to the main villa, the primi was being served; crostinis with with a delicious pate and olive oil. A serious discussion ensued between the chefs as to what the ingredients were in the pate. We went on to have three more courses; a pasta broth, roasted meat and winter vegetables and tiramisu with sweet Vin Santo to finish. After that I looked around some of the expansive downstairs rooms, before going up to my room and drifting into a wine induced slumber.

I awoke early, with the sun trying to pour through the slats of the window. The sun was rising fast over the hills where we were due to go that morning. There was an old tower about a mile’s walk from the villa, which gave a panoramic view over the estate. I was determined to get a look.

I made my way downstairs and navigated my way around bags and the various members of our group to take some photos of the mist and sunrise outside. After the most unhealthy breakfast I’ve ever had, consisting of mostly tiramisu and exceptional coffee, the group walked up a windy old track, past early olive pickers, to the old tower on the hill. After climbing five flights of stairs I was greeted by an even more incredible view than I had imagined: A perfect three hundred sixty degree panorama of Tuscany in the morning. If there wasn’t mist, we were told we could have seen all the way to Florence. It didn’t matter though. I could have sat up there all day. The church bells peeling out across the little village way below us made the experience even better.

journey-through-italy

Before I left, there was a hurried purchase of a bottle of Torrione then back onto the coach and onto Volpia.

Volpia are the only winery in the whole of Tuscany licensed to also make vinegar. Making vinegar is a very long, slow process, as with most things in Italy. Before there can be good vinegar there must be good wine. The white wine vinegars are kept for 2 months in vats and the red wines are kept for 5 months. Only after the wine has become vinegar can additional herbs and ‘perfumes’ be added into the barriques previously used for wine, this will achieve unique flavours in the cooking process. Stalks and stems from the vines are also added to enhance flavour.  The alcohol percentage in the wine must be less than 11% by volume so as not to kill the  natural bacteria which helps to turn wine into vinegar.

We travelled about half an hour east and arrived at what was undoubtedly the most beautifully situated and most modern equipped supplier of our  tour. The Fontodi estate had it all. Pomegranate trees on the driveway, which I grazed on while we waited for our tour to begin, a cool little 4WD Fiat Panda which I posed by for photographs and views which easily rivalled Petrolo’s. By this point I really didn’t want to ever come home.
The winemaker Giovanni was fashionably late, but when he did arrive he looked like a suave Premiership football manager rather than a winemaker, dressed in a double breasted jacket and red scarf. I learned more here than I expected to, Giovanni’s passion for his craft and extensive answers stole the day.

wine

Fontodi is a medium sized vineyard at 160ha and is known locally as the ‘Golden Shell’ or conchiglia d’oro in Italian, it is aptly named as it is surrounded by golden vineyards. The soil is stony here and full of minerals which help Fontodi achieve the incredible flavour in their extensive wines and olive oils. The aspect is nearly all south western, allowing for maximum sunlight exposure.

After the grape harvest of 2000, the best cuttings of the vines, the vast majority being Sangiovese, were taken and replanted in 2002 allowing two fallow years where the soil could recover. This allowed for a much better future yield as only the best vines were selected to grow from. This is how Fontodi can justify charging 35 euros for a bottle of their best Chianti. Their patience and skill in what they do is obvious. When we saw the vats and where the barriques were stored, it was clear that the operation was well-financed and as modern as possible. All the barriques had been carefully selected from a supplier in France.

We then went for a tasting of the flagship 2008 Chianti Classico and white 2010 Meriggio, which were flawless on the palate and in texture as far as I was concerned. Whilst we were trying the epitome of European wine there was also bread and Fontodi oil being passed around with locally made peccarino cheese. Peccarino is made from ewe’s milk and is a delicate flavour and it has to be my favourite cheese in the world. It’s safe to say that I was in my element. As soon as the feeding frenzy had died down, it was over. We were dragged kicking and screaming back to the coach. Well I was.

But about a mile down the road we were in for another treat. It is clear from his colossal handshake and motto “To beef, or not to beef?” that Dario Cecchini is a man you take advice from, not give it to. I never argue with someone who pours me a glass of wine before he talks to me about cutting up meat with sharp knives. So there were about forty people crammed into his tiny shop at lunch time, hanging on his every word, it was surreal and truly beautiful to watch.

Before he did a thing he told us of the level of respect he gives to every piece of meat he deals with. He told us of the history of his family and how he still believes in the tradition they taught him. He does his work with two hundred and fifty years of cumulative experience in the trade. It showed in the speed with which he removed every cut from the huge leg of beef in front of him. It showed in the confidence with which he manoeuvred the knife and left no meat on the bone whatsoever. It was somehow better to hear his explanations in Italian and have them translated by his wife into English. It was almost as though he didn’t need a translator, so sincere was his skill. He gave recipes and showed us how to cook parts of the leg he prepared. There was no waste from that cow, you could be certain.

We made our way across the street, to the restaurant where we were to eat some of the meat he had prepared as a steak tartar. The same Fontodi wines and olive oil we had tried earlier were at the dinner table and were poured out liberally with everything that was served. There were seven courses of the best food imaginable. I couldn’t move after the third, but they kept coming. In the true style of the British abroad, we all kept eating and being polite. It was an incredible gastronomic experience. With the dessert of course there was Vin Santo. After we finished there was grappa, which was a new one for me. I should have read the label. I thought it was just another dessert wine, but after a healthy swig of the 50% grape skin spirit I figured it was probably best to just stick with what I knew.
Somehow I managed to push my chair back from the table and make my way outside. I met up with Ben Arthur the Sous chef and we found a local shop just opening as the afternoon break was ending. We bought all the pasta tools that were in stock. It was a brilliant moment. I had a brass pasta cutter and was running for the bus waiting for us. It’s at times like those when you know that you’re into Italian cuisine.

After another couple of hours on a somewhat more lively coach than I boarded in the morning, we got to Fifteens’ penultimate destination: Capezzana. The cellars were vast and by far the oldest we’d seen. Wine production in the area went back to 804AD! The olive oil plant opposite the villa was vibrant too and work was going on, even though it was seven in the evening.

Fresh from being picked from the vines, the olives were fed into a large funnel outside the pressing plant. They fell through to a basin where they were washed and divested of their stalks before going on to be pressed. It was very weird to see black olives being pressed, and a neon green liquid pour out into the waiting massive terracotta receptacles. We saw names written on each vat, the person who had supplied the olives. It was relatively small scale compared with the wine production we’d seen previously but never the less impressive. Especially with the view out over Florence from the bottling room.

Before dinner there was time for a quick game of five a side on the Capezzana astro turf pitch. Though very unexpected, this was good for creating a bit of an appetite, after the serious meal we’d had just a few hours before.

At dinner there were only four courses this time, easy for experienced veterans of Italian feasts, such as ourselves. There was a borlotti bean stew, polenta with cavalo nero, a meat course and a lemon and almond tart with olive oil to finish. Each course was served with a wine made on the Capezzana estate.

After dinner I was soon feeling pretty tired from all the activity of the past 24 hours so I decided to head back to the little villa I was staying in. It was a short walk up a steep hill from where most of the group were staying, but had a commanding view of Florence’s twinkling lights way below me. I sat and looked out before turning in, drinking in the atmosphere.

In the morning after breakfast and some games of ping pong there was just time to buy some wine and olive oil we’d tried the previous night in a little shop opposite the villa. I bought the Ghiaie della Furba, which made my eyes water at twenty five euro’s for the bottle, but was the best tasting wine I’d tried over the whole trip. I also got a 50cl bottle of extra virgin olive oil from the 2011 crop. It was still being pressed a stone’s throw from the shop. I found I was pretty much the last person out of the shop, and for the second time in two days I was running for a coach with lots of breakable things about my person.
It was not long before we were dropped in Florence, but disappointingly there was only an hour to look around. I made straight for the market and spent what little money I had left on a wild boar salami and the best anchovy and caper pizza ever invented. The freshness of everything on sale was clear to see and smell. The fish were all but still moving and the fruit, vegetables and mushrooms were all in perfect condition.

This was my first experience of seeing the winemaking or olive oil making process in any depth, I enjoyed myself and learnt a lot. I will certainly be going back to Italy again in the not too distant future!

Grazie Fifteen!



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