Our fourth harvest trip took us this week to the Toscana region of Italy. We were certainly aware of the disastrous olive harvests this year, but still felt it was important to follow through with our scheduled visits to groves in Colle di Val d’Elsa and Principe Corsini in the Chianti region of Italy. We could also support Zeynep in making connections with AFS central office in Colle di Val d’Elsa in anticipation of siting some future Zeytin locations nearby.…… and we could eat some wonderful Italian food while visiting these very touristy regions of Italy off-season. We will let those of you who are interested in our olive story to refer to the fourth issue of our “Olive Press” but will use this space to speak about our non-olive experiences. Also, those of you who would like to see Rich’s photos can link here.
Just to get this out of the way, because you are all wondering…..there is the food. God may have given the Irish the gift of gab, but what I (Pat) wouldn’t do for the ability to cook like an Italian! From the first road side stop (Chef Express) where our buffalo mozzarella and cotechino paninis followed by shots of expresso had us raring to go, to our Thanksgiving feast in Villa Corti with Chianti wine, pheasant terrine, and deer stew with polenta, to our outgoing lunch of pasta bolognaise and pastry at the Auto Grill outside of the Bologna airport, we did not eat a single bad meal during out time away. In between, there was wild boar sausage, gnocchi with pesto sauce, tagliatelle with truffle oil, white beans with sage, rosemary, and olive oil, lardo, and as a parting gift to ourselves, sfogliatella that we pirated in our carry on luggage to have for our first breakfast back in Istanbul. Are you hungry yet?
Next, Toscana off-season. We had never heard of Colle di Val d’Elsa, and will guess that neither have you. It is an unspoiled Tuscan Village that has somehow escaped the “touristification” of other villages like San Gimignano and Siena which in turn seem tranquil compared with Florence or Pisa in which, you can find more Americans than Italians on a summer day. In the old city of Colle di Val d’Else, we felt transported back 600 years to when the dungeons were used for more than just storage for a local business. The shaft of the public elevator that today whisks you from the “new” 17th century village up eight stories to the ancient village on the hill were likely used to pour boiling oil on marauders from nearby Siena. Cathedral bells mark the hour and the half hour, and every evening at 8 PM we were treated to a carillon concert. Walls are high and made of stone, streets are narrow and made of stone, and our renovated 2 bedroom apartment in an outbuilding of the 12th Century Cathedral was furnished by IKEA and made of stone. But we did have WIFI!
Today, the city is proud of its place name as the “Cristallo di Colle” – a glass blowing center for cut and leaded glass in Italy. Museums and workshops were everywhere, but all were closed or on limited hours at this off-season time. Some shops did offer sales of beautiful work – one layered vase with a ruby red inner core overlaid with gold and copper dust and finished with a clear glass outer shell was breathtaking. We found one glass forge in a back alley and a garden decorated with “seconds” – vases and glasses that were an apprentice’s first try or an expert’s experiment. With seven months of sabbatical still ahead of us, we were very restrained and bought a single small leaded glass bottle with a beautiful glass top.
Mostly the city that celebrates the interplay of light and matter was, on this late November day, cold, dark and a bit depressing. One felt that perhaps this was the more authentic impression of what it would have been like to live in such a remote mountain top castle. Protected – yes, but isolated – definitely.
What warmed the city up for us was the comfort of the kitchens spied from the outside – the laughter of little children (oh so fashionably dressed) running around the fountain in the Palazzo Arnolfo as their grandfathers tried valiantly to keep up – and the joy of our host Gabrielle who lit up whenever we came by and delighted in telling us everything he could about the town. Then there was Gimmy Gio, who personally welcomed us into his restaurant, and with the same attitude as a beloved uncle who has been waiting for you – showed us where to store our umbrellas and where we could join the other assembled guests in the room next to the shop to enjoy the food he had prepared for us. Before he would take our orders, we had to be served our wine and with some bread and fine olive oil, warm up and relax and get in the right frame of mind to select what we wanted to eat next. This opening up to include us in the “family” was just what we needed as we were very much missing our own families in the US for this Thanksgiving Day. While we are sure none of you will feel sorry for us, the ache of missing family was somewhat alleviated by the Italians we met. Thank you Gabrielle, thank you Gimmy, and thank you Colle di Val D’Elsa!