July 2002by Anne-Marie & Glenn
In our continual quest to find the perfect trattoria with no Americans, we wandered off the main streets (if you can call a six-foot wide path a street) and found a small café called the Trattoria Chiribini. The rich smell of garlic and pasta hit us as we claimed one of the eight small tables at our newest gem and ordered a carafe of wine, zucchini ravioli and a plate of local cheeses. After lunch we spent the afternoon exploring the plazas, duomos and alleys of the fascinating medieval town.
After leaving San Gimignano, we stopped in the tiny village of Monte Benichi near our villa to make a dinner reservation at Ostaria L'Orciaia. The streets were empty on this Sunday afternoon, but as we walked past the small church in the village center we could hear the stirring sound of a faithful organ and the voices of the congregation lifted in song.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were our villa touring days and, with the help of Margherita our local representative from Tuscany, we were able to see 14 properties throughout the Tuscany region. The homes we visited ranged from a quaint two-bedroom cottage in an olive grove outside of Florence to an immense eleven-room castle near the sea.
The highlight of the week was Monday evening, when we were invited to villa Sassaia for a cooking demonstration with Margherita's father, Claudio Bilenchi. Long tables covered in white linen filled Claudio's spectacular dining room while the windows along each wall afforded a breathtaking view of the vineyards surrounding us.
Claudio started us off with an prosceca, an Italian sparkling wine and explained how to prepare several types of cocktails. Next he showed us the local vegetables and spice rubs he prepared in advance and explained the process of creating several different entrees. He gave us a quick tour of his library of recipe books, and then it was on to the cooking.
We started with crustinis and bruschetta brushed with olive oil and truffles and moved on to a tomato and orzo salad. While he worked on these starters, Claudio tended a clear, broth-like soup. A tour of the pastas was next and we received a detailed explanation of the Italian art of combining the right pasta with the right sauce. Claudio explained that the lighter pastas receive the lighter sauces, while the heavy pastas are served with the richer, heavier creams and thicker tomato sauces. We tasted several delicious sauces with ground beef, veal and pork, along with tender ribs and spicy sausages. Strong coffee and a decadent dessert followed the main courses and we finished off the evening with lemon sorbet and prosceca.
Throughout the evening, our gracious host shared his extensive knowledge of Italian cuisine and beguiled us with fascinating tidbits of Tuscany history. We invited the family to join us at our villa for dinner Wednesday night and by the evening's end we knew we had two new life-long friends in this charming man and his lovely wife.
The next evening, after touring the villas with Margherita, we returned to Siena for an organized tour. Our guide delved into the epic history of this intriguing town and we were reminded once more how valuable it is to make a local connection. The Sienese guides were all extremely well educated and joining forces with them seemed to open doors that we didn't even know existed. The smell of dried fruit swept over us when we stopped in a pastry shop to taste the "panneforte," a traditional dessert, similar to a dense fruit cake, made with almonds and dried fruit. During our tour, our guide entertained us with stories of Il Palio, the historic horse races of Siena. Held twice a year, this festival dating back to the Middle Ages is a series of colorful events in which the 17 contrattas compete for a coveted silk banner -- the palio. The highlight of the festival is the break-neck horse race around the main square. Each contratta enters a horse, investing as much as $50,000 in the race and competing for the most treasured prize in Siena, pride.
Wednesday evening Claudio and his family joined us in our villa for a wonderful meal of roast chicken and roast potatoes, prepared by our villa's caretaker, Maria. The meal was served with fresh peas from the garden and we topped it off with an apple tart and the wedge of goat cheese Patricia had given us.
We were off for Rome the next day so at the end of the evening we said our final good-byes and Claudio presented us a special gift of fresh herbs from the region. Once again we felt enveloped in the family and connected to Tuscany in way we will always treasure and never forget.
Plan Your Tuscany Vacation