Saturday, April 17, 2010

Under the Tuscan Sun

When you hear about how amazing a place is, like Tuscany for example, sometimes one can be let down by high expectations.

Then, some places, like Tuscany, exceed even one’s highest expectations.

The moment the Engineer and I pulled up to Podere Ciona high above the Chianti countryside, we fell in love.

No, not with each other.  Ick. With this place that is so magical and amazing I can’t handle it.

Whats-her-face, the woman Diane Lane plays, was right to buy a home here.  Heck, we should all pack in our day jobs and buy a home here.  Or, do as we plan, and find a place as lovely as Podere Ciona and return year after year.

Firstly, I think Podere means farm?  Sort of.  Maybe vineyard.  Anyhoo, it’s not a villa but rather a cluster of farmhouses rebuilt on top of the ruins of houses from 1300 (I am not kidding) high on a hill with views of their rows of Chianti, surrounded by Olive trees (Franca, the owner, presses her own olive oil), complete with two cats and two dogs.

Franca, the lovely and welcoming owner, took us in like a mother hen and her chicks.  She led us to the apartment attached to her own home.  The stone patio, under the shadow of wisteria (that won’t bloom until May), overlooks the rolling Tuscan hills that are slowly turning green under the hot spring sun.  She had me at patio. 

Through a tiny door, we were led into a kitchen with a large dining room table.  Up three stone steps lay our living room for the week.  It was so comforting.  Soft pastel coloured couches and bookshelves lined with ancient Italian texts.  As well as a record player with a collection of Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel.  The Engineer was in heaven. 

Then came our bedroom with a door that opened onto the back garden and a massive bathroom.  In fact there were two bathrooms, which, when traveling with a boy, is my idea of heaven.

So here we were in this lovely Tuscan home, with a lovely Tuscan view and a lovely Tuscan host.  We barely left for five days.  Franca commented on the fact we never left.  We looked at her, confused, and told her when a place is as nice as this, why would we leave?

We did leave, sometimes.  To the early morning market where we used part-kindergarten Italian, part-mime to buy fragile (strawberries), a roasted polle (chicken), basil, cheese, proccuito, and various vegetables. 

I was going to cook.

And cook I did.  I cooked so much I made the stove explode.  Seriously.

The stove was a gas one, like my own.  And it had a glass cover on it that you had to lift to light the stove.  Well, both the Engineer and I thought it was strange but went along with cooking on this glass surface. Until one night when reheating a stew, the glass shattered and exploded.  Whoops.

Franca’s daughter came to help us clean up and asked why the glass was down when the gas was on.  Luckily, these people are so nice her main concern was that we did not get hurt.  And she understood that so many stoves are different we weren’t to know the glass cover was just to keep the stove clean.

So I let Franca cook the next night. She’s one of the five ‘Tuscan Momma’s’ that travel around the world teaching Tuscan cooking to people like me.  Franca might just be the most interesting person on earth.  She is seventy and travels the world teaching with her sister, cousin and two best friends.  They were even on the Today Show.  This is something she started doing just a few years ago.  Her husband, Franco, is a retired engineer who spends his week as a consultant to companies like Exxon around Italy.  On top of that, they run a tiny but successful vineyard that makes Chianti and Merlot. 

We met Franco the night of our cooking class.  Elegant and charming, he came in to wish us a good night, bless us, and make sure his wife was well.  We fell in love with him as well.

The cooking class consisted of the Engineer, myself, and a nice couple the same age as us from the States.  We made a ‘gourmet log’ that was a light pastry rolled with ham, peppers and lettuce.  Then risotto, chicken marsala and fragole zabiglione.  At first, we were very good students.  But as the wine kept pouring and the sun was setting, Franca did most of the hard work and we ate. 

The sun set that night was especially gorgeous, we all stepped outside to look.  In that moment, with the hills turning a deep purple and the sky a hazy mixture of pinks, oranges and reds, I knew that I wanted to get married here.  But that’s another story.

Anyways, we ate, laughed, talked long in the night and went to bed happy and content. 

We were able to tear ourselves away from our house a few times to explore Sienna, a perfect example of Medieval Italy.  Or the surrounding towns like Radda and Vintere.  Other perfect examples of Medieval Italy. 

In fact, Vintere is a little secret gem that normal tourists simply pass by.  Franca told us to go there for ‘happy hour’ so we did.  It’s up on a hill, and surrounded by a wall.  There is literally nothing there except for the homes of people (hello, I live in a medieval house) and this one cafĂ©.  The stone of the town was so clean that it looked new.  Like Disneyland, except real.

We sat, letting the sun set (again) as I drank my spritz and ate nuts.  The happy hour attracted various Italians who came to say hello to friends, have their drink and leave.  Sort of like the British pub except quieter and much prettier. 

We then headed to have pizza in our own little village of Montegrossi (so tiny I thought it was someone’s house), checking out the countryside fading under the setting sun.  We could see the towers of Radda, the lights of Sienna and the glittering villages below. 

Magic?  Yes.

There is a reason there are books about it.  They weren’t lying.  I couldn’t help wondering if Italians leave to build summer houses in England or the States.  But looking at this place, we knew the answer was ‘no’.  There are no books called ‘Under the Ohioan Sun’. 

Ps.  Fun fact?  No one is allowed to build new houses in Tuscany.  That is how they protect the countryside.  You can only restore.  Hence why the Engineer and I were sleeping in a medieval pigpen.  Literally.  Hooray for the Italian government for saving ‘Chiantishire’!

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