Monday, April 25, 2011

Under the Tuscan Sun

Buongiorno! from Mercatale di Cortona in beautiful Tuscany. Hey, you have ever read the book "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes, or seen the movie version starring Diane Lane? Well I am in the very spot where that story unfolded. And with no disrespect to Ms. Mayes, no written description could truly capture the beauty of this place. In fact, the same could be said for Diane Lane, but that is a topic for another entry. This week it is medieval villages, spectacular rolling countryside views, olive groves, chianti, and food, food, food.

Italians - Tuscans in particular - are passionate about their food and drink, to say the least. Take, for example, the pasta. Each village has their own variety which they claim to be "the best in Tuscany" and host elaborate festivals to celebrate the virtues of their homegrown favorite. So one night you can head to the Mercatale di Cortona Festa to feast on tagliatelle, and learn why it is the best in Tuscany. Then head over to neighboring Lisciano Niccone (in Umbria) for the Sagra dei Bringoli, to learn that brignoli is - you guessed it - the best in Tuscany. But don't take their word for it. Try them all: from the fat spaghetti-like pici to the wide eggy pappardelle, and everything in between. There is even one variety which includes cocoa powder in the dough. That's right, chocolate pasta. God I love these people.

Tuscany is also at the heart of the agritourismo industry. Agritourismo is a portmanteau (pardon my French) of the Italian words for agriculture and tourism. You see, farming and food production have been the backbone of Tuscan and other rural Italian economies for centuries. But by the 1950s, small-scale farming was in a steep decline and many Italians abandoned their farms to look for work in the larger towns and cities. By the 1970s, the Tuscan countryside was dotted with vacant buildings and barns. By the mid-1980s it was clear that something very precious - a heritage - was at risk of being lost forever, in addition to placing intense pressure on the job markets of Italian towns. So some very cleaver, and forward-looking people got together and came up with a solution to both problems. In 1985, a law was passed creating a hybrid agriculture/tourism destination concept. Farmers, and their knowledge of regional foods, were brought back to the land with the ability to lodge and feed guests right there on the farm. And while the farming itself is still a losing proposition, lodging, feeding, and educating vacationers is quite profitable, helping to remake Tuscany into one of the top vacation destinations in Europe. And I am all the fatter for it.

A stay at an agritourismo can be as hands-on or off as you like. If you simply want to take in the sites from your beautiful countryside accommodations, they've got you covered. But if you'd like to participate in some of the duties and activities on the farm, a pricing arrangement is available for that too. So, for example, you could collect the eggs for your breakfast right from the chicken houses, and later help forage for mushrooms to be used in that night's pasta sauce. Not only are these meals super fresh, but there is something very satisfying about knowing where your food is coming from, and the hard work and dedication that went into preparing it. Whereas if you eat a lot of fast food, I'd say it is best just not to think about it too much. Imagine a bucolic farm scene in your head, and leave it at that.

Of course, as the Timeshare Ambassador, I saw it as my duty to check out Borgo di Vagli, which is not an agritourismo. Instead, it is an entire Tuscan village which has been restored to its 14th century splendor and sold as timeshares. So while there are working farms in the immediate area, and you will get all of the same authentic meals, you get the added luxury and amenities you normally associate with timeshare resorts. My timeshare rental is a 1-bedroom/1-bathroom unit with a garden view and access to the beautiful outdoor swimming pool. It's no wonder members rate this place 5-stars.

Well I am off to the town of Bibbona for the annual Festa del Cedro, or Citron Festival (and I am not talking about that awful lemon-flavored vodka by Absolut; I use that stuff to clean my grill). No, the citron or "cedro" is one of the oldest citrus fruits known to Europeans. Unlike its juicy counterparts like lemons and limes, the citron is very thick skinned, and has little pulp or juice. The thick white pith is where citronella, the mosquito repellant, is derived. Sounds yummy, eh? But don't underestimate Tuscan ingenuity or their ability to make a tasty treat out of just about anything. Cedros are traditional easter presents in Tuscany you see, and in the week following the sacred event, a candied version of the lemony rind is offered at this festival. It's sweet and tart at the same time, and simply melts on your tongue. They also add them to wines, soups, and yes - pasta. Did I mention how much I love these people?

1 comment:

  1. Seymour - you outdid yourself with this one! This is my favorite of all the posts you've ever written! (And that's saying something!)