Tuscan Tales Chapter 28 – The Florentine Flop

To me the best day of the year is my birthday. The 22nd March … not the 21st March or the 23rd March. I am quite unable do that. For, as long as I can remember, my joy has been to celebrate my birthday in my home, surrounded by friends and family, and I cook. A sort of lousy Babette’s Feast, for I am no cook to write home about, but this is the day that I pull out all the stops.

This year for the first time we were in Tuscany. ‘I’ll feed them all here,’ I told my brother, who was visiting from the Cape.  ‘Us, Mila and Mauro from Venice, and Kira and Mirko from Florence. I’ll set the yellowwood table beautifully. I’ll use Ouma’s old dinner service and I’ll cook something nice – with a real Cape flavour’.

My brother, a long time sufferer of my culinary experiments, looked at me dubiously: ‘Wouldn’t it be better to just go to a restaurant?’ he said. ‘Nope!’ I said, ‘I’ll ring Kira and see if she can come’. Now Kira is a legendary cook of note. Liam would walk the 32 kilometres from our house to Florence simply to taste her risotto. ‘Oh oh,’ said my brother, ‘THAT Kira.’

And so the doubt set in …

‘Kira,’ I said on the phone, ‘do you perhaps know of a nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant in Florence where we can go for my birthday?’

duomo fixed

The nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant lay just behind the Duomo. It was packed to the brim with locals enjoying good Tuscan fare. Doors and windows were closed against the March chill, scented waves of ribollita, lasagne and pasta competed with the chat and general laughter of people simply having a seriously good time. The local Tuscan red flowed and our table was enjoying it all immensely. ‘No matter that I did not cook,’ I thought, ‘I feel as happy as I have on every birthday.’ My brother glanced across the table at me, lowered his eyes and smiled gratefully at his plate.

It was late afternoon by the time we walked out of the door of the restaurant. The men walked ahead while us women set a more leisurely pace, strolling down the narrow cobbled streets and gazing at the beautiful displays in each window that we passed. Every now and then we stopped to talk about owning one of the stunning Florentine creations on show.

We were almost at the parking garage where we had parked the car when another and different window display sprang to light – it was a bicycle shop. On display were beautiful gleaming bikes of all shapes and designs … pedal, electric, fold-up … Fold-up? ‘Just the thing!’ I cried, ‘Let’s go in and have a look.’

Full of red wine and bonhomie we very soon forged an excellent friendship with the owner of the shop. ‘What I need,’ I said, ‘is a fold-up bike that would fit into Campari. Then I can come into Florence on a Sunday and I can simply park anywhere, get the bike out, and off I go.’

‘Sure!’ said the owner – he was so nice – ‘but you don’t want an ordinary little one. You want one with style’.

‘Style, that’s it exactly!’ chorused the three of us, ‘It simply won’t do without style.’ And then he produced it. A magnificent white, gleaming charge ready to do battle with any of the rough cobbled streets and traffic jams of Florence. ‘Oooooh!’ we gasped.

By this time the men had doubled back to find us, and they were much more critical, if not a tad sceptical. ‘But how does it work?’ asked Liam. ‘Oh that’s easy’ said the lovely man ‘You just snap-click and the handle bars and front wheel fold back to double the bike back onto itself.’ The men walked around it. Finally Liam, with a twinkle in his eye, said ‘Well, if it can fit into the back of Campari you can have it. It’s your birthday present.’

backseat fixed

Campari was duly fetched from the parking garage and positioned on the pavement outside the bicycle shop door. ‘Snap-click’ went the man and onto the back seat of Campari went the bicycle. A perfect fit, and a perfect end to a perfect day.

The next Sunday Liam folded my gleaming new toy onto the back seat of Campari and off I set for Florence. ‘Enjoy’ he cried as he waved good-bye from our wooden gate at the bottom of our valley, ‘Explore Florence and come back to tell me all about it’.

Passing Pasquale in his orto I called out to him. ‘Buongiorno … I’m going riding in the streets of Florence. ‘Let me see,’ he replied and came up to the car, ‘Oh, one of those’ he said. ‘Better you take the bus’. And muttering something suspiciously like ‘new fangled rubbish’, he set off back to his vegetable patch.

I decided to park Campari just in front of the American Embassy. ‘It’ll be a nice ride along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio,’ I thought, ‘and then I’ll take it from there’.

I got the bike out and set off. I crossed the Arno at the Ponte Amerigo Vespuci and cruised slowly along the south bank of the river. A light breeze played softly in my hair. ‘Oh this is the life’ I thought, ‘so step it up girl.’ I pedalled faster. In front of me I could see the Ponte Vecchio, its beautiful medieval shops basking in the morning sunlight. I headed for it.

Just about at the corner of Ponte Santa Trinita and Via Maggio there is a row of dust bins – those funny big grey ones on four little wheels. It was there that I heard a snap, but no click. With that the handle bars and front wheel folded in on me and I found myself airborne. With an unceremonious flop I landed on top of the dust bin with the broken lid. Tourists gasped, onlookers gazed … and I?

Dustbins fixedIgnoring my grazed elbows, and not even attempting the ‘snap-click’ I lifted the awkward beast up and beat a hasty retreat down the narrow side road running towards the Santo Spirito.




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Tuscan Tales Chapter 19 – Rolling Countryside

Old Cosimo is sitting on the stone wall on the other side of our fence, like an old lizard soaking up the sun. ‘Buongiorno’ he turns to me, gesturing with his hands for me to turn the on fountain. I flick the switch and the water leaps up. He grins with delight. ‘Time to practise my Italian,’ I think.
I flick the switch and the water leaps up
I flick the switch and the water leaps up …

Dove Tristin e Stella?’ I ask, pointing to the old stone house at the top of the hill. Ever since we arrived, a week back, the house has been firmly shut, all shutters closed. Tristin and Stella are an elderly couple, somewhat of an enigma and very often the talk of our valley.

Known as the ‘inglesi’ they’ve lived here for about forty years. I first met Stella wandering down our narrow dirt road one fine summer’s day. Hatless, her long grey hair streaming behind her, she had a pair of clippers in her hand and was gathering wild flowers. As my car drew close she turned, gave me a startled look, and Ophelia-like, disappeared into the nearest field.

It was after this that I asked Cosimo about them. As the oldest in our small hamlet, he prides himself on imparting any local titbits you wish to know. ‘Oh them,’ he said, ‘… the senora – she’s a poet … not too bad I hear, com si com sa. But Tristin – he’s molto intelligentsia … molto molto molto!’

Cosimo slapped his knees, emphasising this amazing phenomenon, and then leaning forward, he capped his hands to let me in on the secret … ‘Would you believe it? He translates Dante!’

‘Wow’ I said, suitably impressed. ‘So they both work from home in this beautiful place?’ ‘Non non, not so much these days,’ Cosimo leant back, using his arm to demonstrate. ‘Bevono molto molto vino … Chianti Classico – tutto! Guarda la macchina rossa?’ He pointed to the little red Fiat Panda parked at their front door. ‘Si!’ I said, ‘Yes’.

‘Well if you see that red car on the road from here to the village, you pull over and stop. That’s what we all do. That car is pericolosa … it is dangerous … to anything in its way.’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll remember.’ And from time to time we did see the little red car out and about, but it seemed fine to me. Furthermore there was rumour in the village that they were both completely off the bottle, and had, instead, become addicted to tea.

That car is pericolosa ...
That car is pericolosa …

Our dirt road can only take one car, so if we meet another, one pulls over onto the edge of the olives. And that is how we met Tristin. ‘Hello’ he said winding down his window. ‘We’ve been watching your gardening with great interest.’ ‘Well, come and have tea with us.’ I said.

They arrived promptly at four o’clock, the little red car inching its way down the gravel. Both immensely tall and thin, they seemed quite frail, like fine fronds of willow that sway in the breeze. The conversation ranged widely over tea, from politics and books to music. Tristin used to play in the village band – I think he said the trumpet. ‘When it folded I wanted to play for the next village’ he said, ‘I loved it so. But such are the rivalries between villages that they wouldn’t have any of us!’

And yes, he did translate Dante.

A few months later we were invited to them for tea. Their stone house sits atop a ridge commanding a view of two valleys. ‘It surely must be one of the most spectacular sites in Tuscany,’ I thought as we trudged up the hill from our house.

‘Welcome, welcome!’ said Tristin. Stella has the kettle on to boil. We sat down under a giant mulberry tree, admiring the view. Then I went in to help Stella. ‘Oh dear oh dear’ she muttered, wandering around taking stabs at a few cups and saucers. ‘I never know how many teabags, do you?’ ‘Not really.’ I said. ‘Oh well, seven should do.’ She smiled and dropped them all into the teapot.

We sat down under a giant mulberry tree
We sat down under a giant mulberry tree …

I glanced around. The kitchen area was a vast space with a vaulted brick ceiling, but what held me spellbound was the use of that space. It seemed that forty years of living had just been plonked down, year after year, and then never been touched. Pots and pans hung from beams, shelving belched books, crockery, clocks … anything and everything. And as for floor space … well, you would need a GPS to navigate across it.

Again the conversation was engrossing, this time encompassing their love of plants, and Stella’s vast knowledge of the history of religion. ‘I feel that everything has a karma,’ she said, ‘a reason for being and a reason not to be disturbed.’ ‘Yes,’ said Tristin, ‘it even includes my computer. I need it for translating and it does bring in very welcome work, but Stella will not have it visible, or turned on unnecessarily – it lives in a small room out the back.’ ‘I don’t like it one bit’ she smiled.

After that it was a very long time that we did not see them. The winter bites in hard in the hills around Florence, and people keep indoors, using up the vast stores of wood that they have collected in the summer. But now it was warm, and everyone was out and about, the noise of strimmers incessant as the field workers cut the grasses around the olives in the bright sunshine.

In our little hamlet our neighbours would come out in the evening glow, and chat while they waited for their pots to boil, and although Tristin and Stella, both immensely shy and formal, were never part of any informal ‘passegiata’ or evening stroll, it worried me that there had been no sign of them at all.

Even more worrying was that on the way back from the village we had noticed a red Fiat Panda halfway down the hill. It seemed to have tumbled off the road, through a vineyard and finally come to rest jammed up against the trunk of a chestnut tree. The drivers’ side window was staved in and there were numerous nasty dents in the side and the top.

‘Goodness,’ I had said to Liam, ‘that looks like Tristin and Stella’s car.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it’s too red and shiny, too new.’ But I wasn’t so sure, and certainly there was no little red car parked at their house. Now I waited apprehensively for Cosimo’s reply …

‘Tristin,’ said Cosimo, shaking his head, ‘Tristin is in hospital. He drove his red car right off the road, rolling all the way down through the vines. He’s broken both his legs, right here’ and he drew a line half way across his thighs. ‘Ouch.’ I said, ‘That means he may not even be able to walk again?’ ‘No,’ sighed Cosimo mournfully.

‘And where is Stella?’ I asked. ‘She cannot stay at home on her own as she is too frail’ he replied. ‘She’s staying with her daughter, Sarah. Every now and then I see Sarah’s car at the house. She goes there to open up and air it.’ I fell silent, trying to imagine what it would be like to live down our valley with no eccentrics at the top of the hill. ‘Awful’ I said, ‘I wonder if he had some sort of a heart attack or stroke?’

‘No no’ said Cosimo. ‘It was the vino. People say that it was not the drink but I know that it was. That’s what happens to the inglesi in Italy … la dolce vita, il vino buono … it gets them all.’ And from under his grubby peaked hat, his ruddy old face for all the world a mirror image of a good bottle laid down for decades, he shot me a mischievous grin.

But old men ... have ages to weave stories ...
But old men … have ages to weave stories …

But old men, with time to sit in the sun, have ages to weave stories around and around, until finessing them becomes a fine art. For the next day I saw Sarah’s car up at the house on the hill, and I walked up to find out how these two special people were doing. ‘Come in, come in,’ said Sarah ‘they’re both here and would like to see you. They’re only using the eastern side of the house at the moment, as it is easier for them to get around.

And there, in the higgeldy-piggeldy kitchen, stood Tristin, as tall as a tree and walking towards me. One of his long arms was covered in plaster, and he had a nasty knock on his head. ‘I remember nothing’ he said. ‘It’s a complete blank. When I came too, the car and I were at the bottom of the vineyard. Luckily I had collapsed across the front and had wedged my head in a sort of vice, in one corner. Rather like wearing a crash helmet.’

Then all of a sudden there was Stella, peering out cautiously from behind one of the cupboards. ‘Would you like some real Nescafe coffee?’ she asked brightly.
But, remembering the tea, I beat a hasty retreat, down the western side of the valley, to our house at the bottom of the hill.

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 17 – ‘… fruit of the vine.’

Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober? Let me alone, let me go home … let me go back and start over …’ So goes the song of the sixties, and for some, so accurate are the lyrics that I wonder if the composer, Tom Paxton, was perhaps in Chianti when he wrote it? Was he perhaps sitting right in the middle of one of these wonderful vineyards?

For right now the grapes are simply bursting off the vines, the pickers are at the ready, and the farmers are anxiously watching the skies. They don’t want rain … that’ll ruin that little round purple ball of a Sangiovese grape. That’s the hero of the bottle: that’s what makes the Chianti Classico, the Super Tuscan and anything else … the drinking wine, the rosato and even the vin santo. It is quite simply the workhorse of the whole thing.

the harvest coming in
The harvest coming in …

I looked it up. The name ‘sangiovese’ comes from the Latin ‘sanguis jovis’ meaning the blood of Jove. By the 16th century it was well known, but today’s DNA testing traces it to an ancient Tuscan grape called ‘ciliegiolo’ and another variety ‘calabrese montenuovo’ further south. It’s had its ups and downs, and certainly so in the mid-20th century: By the 1950’s the bulbous raffia Chianti wine bottle was well known … a tad too well known. Its reputation as a good wine had taken a dive and the quality was in low regard. Wines were being added to the Chianti mix from all over – right down to Sicily and Puglia.

Then, around about the early 1980s, the outstanding quality of the sangiovese grape was re-discovered and it has been all go from there. Strict regulations are now applied, and only a certain percentage of other wines may be mixed in order to form the authentic ‘Chianti Classico’ and earn the DOC … the coveted stamp of approval.

What’s more the area around us is simply excellent for production – we have the height – 150m- 550m, we have the mix of ‘shale-clay soil called the ‘galestro’ and we have the hills – masses of them, dipping and diving from peak to riverbed.

But, interesting as the history is, we’re into the drinking of it. And we don’t have to worry if it will rain tomorrow as we have some utterly delicious looking Chianti Classico squashed into a 55 litre damigiana. What’s more we have the bottles, we have the corks, and we even have the extraordinary looking corking machine. Now all we have to do is get the contents of the big bottle into the smaller bottles, and cork it.

Should be easy.

... several friends are here to help ...
… several friends are here to help …

Several friends are here to help and none of them have ever done this before. In fact, the collective lack of experience should be off-putting, but it’s not. First, the easy part: we stand the empty and expectant bottles on the table. (Better idea – next time remove the pretty market tablecloth.)

Then we put the bag of corks next to the corking monster. Now to lift the 55 litre demigiana onto the table … heavy and likely to tip. Done it! It’s clearly going to be a doddle.

... a pre-run of the corking monster ...
… a pre-run of the corking monster …

‘Just so that we know exactly what we are doing’ says a helpful friend ‘Let’s have a pre-run of the corking monster. Let’s cork a bottle and see.’ ‘Good plan,’ says Liam, ‘we can just uncork it again.’ We set the monster up. We place the bottle on a tiny stand just under the hole in the front, and place the cork in the hole. Liam grabs the handle, and pulls – it is rather like the action of a hand-held water pump. Oops, bottle not aligned with cork-hole. ‘Now we know.’ says Liam.

Should be easy, too.

Along with the bottles and the corks from Lucio came a strange looking two-way transparent pipe with a sort of tap on the top. ‘It’s simple,’ I tell Liam, ‘it’s just a matter of the law of gravity. You put the one bit of pipe into the damigiana and the other into the waiting bottle below. Then the law of gravity takes over .. . er, perhaps turn the tap on …’ I add, as nothing happens.

‘I know’ says Liam ‘I need to suck the air out of the pipe so that the wine flows through. The trick is to get the wine flowing, and as it begins to flow, to transfer the plastic tube from mouth to bottle in one action. ‘Sis’ I say ‘spit into every bottle?’ ‘No’ he laughs ‘you do it like this.’ And he gives a good suck. We watch the red wine flow through the transparent pipe. ‘It’s a bit like having your blood taken at the Royal Free Hospital,’ I joke, ‘Only I look the other way!’

Cosimo bottling fixedBut Liam is not in a joking mood. For how to stop the wine once you’ve reached the ‘critical gap’ at the neck of the bottle? Chianti wine is simply flowing everywhere and the tap does not seem to have an ‘off’. It is too good to waste and we have not thought of having a basin at the ready.

So Liam drinks, and he drinks, and our friends? Well they are simply in hysterics. They are also busy forming a queue. ‘Me next!’ comes the chorus.

Looks like we are in for one hell of an afternoon ahead …


... it's been a good year ...
… it’s been a good year …


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 16 – ‘Bottle of wine …’

We are to have a summer party. Reiner, who knows everyone in our village, is leaning over his spade chatting to Liam. He’s found some good Chianti wine at a local vineyard of a friend of his. ‘Guido has produced too much for his registered quota,’ he tells Liam, ‘and I think we should go and have a look this afternoon. He has a small winery called le Fonti.’

It’s traditional in our area to throw a party for all builders and helpers once your house is finished. We’ve been here for over a year now, and as our house seems as if it will never quite be finished, we’ve decided right now will be just fine. Yesterday, Umberto, our electrician, was up a ladder fixing lights along the old beams in the apartment, and I chatted to him. ‘Yes, I’d love to come’ he said gazing down at me. ‘Do you know that it will be the first time I have come to a party at Fontana since I was a young boy?’

‘What do you mean, what parties were here?’ I asked, and he settled back to tell me. As a boy he lived in the old stone house at the top of the hill near the Madonnina

‘There were three farms across our valley – the great old Villa you can see from your garden, at the top of the vineyards, Fontana in the middle, and the farm in the next valley, to the east. At the end of each summer the bringing in of the harvest was celebrated at Fontana. Then the abandoned olive grove that we are busy restoring was up and running, and the wild section below was used for growing corn. The harvest party was held on what is now your west terrace, where there was a large threshing stone. My wife will just love seeing Fontana,’ said Umberto, ‘and all our children.’

Later I speak to Alfio, the builder who has just finished the buttressing of the southern wall of the house … the bit that has been threatening to slide down the hill and into the swimming pool. He’s a great bear of a chap, with huge shoulders and rough calloused hands, red and angry from constant contact with raw cement. ‘I’m too busy to do any of the finishing off, and Reiner can cope with it’ he says.

‘I hope you’re not too busy to come to our party?’ I say innocently. ‘When?’ he says. ‘Next week, on Saturday’ I say. ‘Lovely! I’ll be there – and my wife, and the children’ he says.

And so it has gone: all will bring their wives and children. ‘I think we can multiply each adult by 4’ I tell Reiner. ‘Don’t have the party at lunchtime’ Reiner advises. ‘They’ll all stay until late anyway. Start at 6.’

We’ll have trestle tables under the tree on the west terrace and traditional Italian fare. I dream ….

‘The wine’ says Reiner ‘buy it from Guido and bottle it yourself. It’s good wine, and will be very reasonable …’

... could be a medieval scene ...
… could be a medieval scene …

Guido’s small winery nestles directly below the church in old Panzano. He and his wife Vicky have spent many years perfecting what seems to me was already Paradise. The farm land is perched high on the hill with sweeping views over what could be a medieval scene … patches of olive grove lie alongside terraced vineyards, all in between soft hills and diverse greens of natural forest. And here, between the church steeple and the river below, Guido has not only restored the family’s 17th century farmhouse but has also built a state of the art modern winery. Old stone harmonises with the new. Great stainless steel vats line the walls making the red of the terracotta floor glisten where the taps wash off spillage.

Guido’s young, with fine olive green eyes. He has a kind of sensitivity about him that is difficult to pin point, but I am not surprised when Vicky tells me later that he used to be a professional photographer. He moves between the different vintages, chatting as he goes. ‘This is my life’ he says ‘and it’s a good one. I have my wife working with me in the sales, and my children run in and out all day. Every year my wine is improving and I am beginning to see the fruits of years of hard labour.’

... the fruits of this hard labour ...
… the fruits of this hard labour …

We taste the fruits of this hard labour, savouring the richness of the full bodied Sangiovese grape. We’re to buy a classic Chianti Classico, and it’s delicious – easy on the palate with about 13% alcoholic content. Not too strong – or our guests will not be able to negotiate our pot-bellied road back up the hill.

Guido sells us a ‘damigiana’ – one of those great bulbous green bottles with basket weave at the base. This one holds 55 litres. The wine is lifted in and the car sinks under the heavy load. ‘Come again.’ he says ‘Come and have a barbecue in the summer.’ He hands us a large packet of corks as a present.

... a large green grasshopper on spidery legs ...
… a large green grasshopper on spidery legs …

We stop at the hardware store. Lucio only has 30 green wine bottles left, he’ll order some more. He, Reiner and Liam chat about the best corking machine to buy. They finally decide on a good solid one. It’s an intricate contraption and looks to me like a large green grasshopper on spidery legs – complete with proboscis sticking out the top. There’s an art to bottling – somehow the cork needs to be squeezed, and once in, the gap between the cork and the top of the wine is to be no more than 2cm.

With the bottles, the machine and the wine on board, Liam negotiates the potholes carefully. He and Reiner chat happily about the price of the wine and the mechanics of the bottling machine.

And I?

I am sitting in the back seat dreaming. We’ve wine to bottle from the surrounding hills. It’s unbelievable. Next we’ll have the old olives bearing again, and I’ll have my beehives producing honey. I’ve always had labels for my honey, even in London and I’ll have them here at Fontana too …

But what about a wine label? Now that’s something new …


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