Monday, December 9, 2013

Tuscany's chocolate country, too!

When you think of Italy, chocolate may not be one of the first words that come to mind. Wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, truffle, parmigiano, gelato and caffe espresso probably win the top spaces of a long list. Eventually someone would mention Nutella though, which doesn't really classify as chocolate I suppose (since the main ingredients are palm oil and sugar), but it would tell you that Italians make chocolate and are one of the historical countries in Europe for specializing in it.
Chocolate is made from Cocoa beans from the Cocoa tree that contain cocoa butter and cocoa solids. There are 3 varieties of trees: Forastero which is the hardiest and hence the most common, Criollo gives a less bitter fruit considered the finest but only makes up for 10% of world production and then there is a hybrid made from the two varieties called Trinitario. So before beans are roasted and separated (almost even in quantity) the substance inside the bean is referred to as chocolate liquor. In Europe something can be called "chocolate" if it contains at least 67% of chocolate liquor - and then in various measures according the kind of chocolate denomination.
So in theory ingredients of "white chocolate" should be cocoa butter (min. 20%) milk and sugar; "milk chocolate": cocoa butter, cocoa solids (min 25%) milk and sugar. "Dark chocolate"  is similar but contains less milk and is to be made with at least 35% cocoa solids for European regulations (for the US there is no official regulation for how much cocoa solids should be in chocolate of any denomination - e.g. Milk chocolate must contain min 10% chocolate liquor).
So all in all the definition of chocolate may vary from continent to continent, and often it contains different fats (not just the natural cocoa butter) and also an emulsifier such as soy lecithin, and other ingredients.

So yesterday we went to Tuscany's most notorious artisan chocolate maker named Amedei. A lot of the great chocolate makers in Tuscany are situated around Pisa somewhere. I'm guessing because of the vicinity to the port so beans can be shipped in readily.
Amedei has a short history of about 25 yrs but has distinguished itself for it meticulous search for excellence. A large part of the beans utilized are grown on propriety groves in the country of origin and supervised by own agronomists so that the quality of bean is ensured to be the best with no parasite problems. After fermentation and drying the beans reach the destination at Amadei where they are roasted and grind into a paste at 13 microns (extremely tiny bits) to separate the butter and the solids. Then chocolate making can be initiated. Brown caster sugar is used in order to obtain the most genuine result and no emulsifier is used. Their most well known chocolate is called Toscano Black and is a dark chocolate (70%) of incredible persistency. Bitter to the right point. Packaging is done entirely by hand, so if you appreciate high high quality stuff, I think Amedei might be right up your alley.
By the way, on request we can organize tours to Amedei. Email us with your special request - just bear in mind that visits are only organized on special request for private groups (and aren't cheap!).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mastering the wine @ the Tuscan Wine School

What fun it is when we are asked to set up a special tasting for someone. It usually means you have people come who are already excited by wine and then our task becomes quite easy; to present, serve and discuss (and maybe taste a bit ourselves!).

Today we did a Master Class for 20 Australians (wine lovers/wine makers) and we cracked open 20 lovely wines, diverse in typology, from cheaper to very expensive wines. And we had the story of the wines reveal themselves inside the glasses. It was definitely magical!
Great wines amongst which were the favorites: San Polino Brunello 2007, Bruno di Rocca 2000, Sassicaia 2009 and Vigna d'Alceo 2008 (100 points!)...

And then, to change completely subject, don't forget that this is the time to order your new fresh olive oil 2013! The site is - we need orders in by Nov 25th if you would like to receive them for xmas!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Amalfi coast wine tour

Just home from a long week-end at the Amalfi coast. Finally, after 18 yrs in the country, I get around to organizing a trip with Pierre and the boys. Organizing is a big word, perhaps, as the boys are in an age that it's hard to organize any grown up activity, so we left the details to last so that we could have a look at how to spend the days after having understood the terrain of the area (e.g. strollers didn't allow us to hike or climb up in the villages). In fact, I surprised myself so much by not planning far ahead for a winery visit that I feebly researched some on the highway down there and hooked up with Vigne di Raito for my bday - Sat 2nd of November (an otherwise depressing day in Italy as people go to the graveyards to remember the dead on this day).

But back to day one when we were driving to the Amalfi from Tuscany. First of all, it's much further than I had originally thought. So as I was a bit bored, I looked up info on the area and of course stumbled into Rick Steves' valuable words on the first page of the google search about Amalfi. I read it out loud to my husband who was driving and we found it quite amusing that Rick's advice was not to visit the much appraised island of Capri. I had heard that you can see it and die (!) - and furthermore I had the idea that there would be many a restaurant featuring the Caprese salad - hence the word.
So, ignoring Rick completely, our first day was entirely wasted on going the 1 hour (beyond) boat ride from Amalfi to Capri (and back), starting at 9.30 and heading back at 3.30 pm. You arrive in Capri around 11 and even if the boat ride is pretty, it is looong and your initial excitement fades quickly. Upon arrival you immediately discover that the port is a tourist trap with cafes and taxi drivers waiting to suck your money out of you. So you quickly must figure out that you need to take the funicular to arrive to the top of the village where the views and fashionable shops are.

It dawns upon you that either you hike the island (if you are a hiker or in the condition to hike) or you are enclosed in a large tourist trap. Our first stop was a beer for 8 euro a piece. Only beaten by an equally expensive beer a few yrs ago by the tower of Pisa. It's funny how you feel even more ripped off when you live here and know the price of things. After a 20 euro boat ride (each way) the reward was a bit disappointing!
I'll let the rest of my thoughts about Capri condense into a few words: I was not impressed. Only great thing was that we hit a great place for lunch. Actually it's a bakery/gelateria, but you can eat there. It's called Buonocore - everything was absolutely delicious. And not a rip off! So thanks to this little place we felt saved from a complete waste of a day.

Next day absolutely had to be better, and luckily it was. It's always a positive experience when you hit a farm, I think. You get to meet someone from the area who knows it from the inside and who can give you a personalized non-touristy perspective. For me it's even better because I love the subject of wine, but I would say it's great for anyone as you get to feel the terrain in peace and away from the crowds, enjoying exclusive views and products from the area.

Vietri sul Mare is the first village from Salerno that makes up the long and windy Amalfi coast line. It's particularly famous for its ceramics, in fact the village is packed with colorful ceramic outlets. Raito is a little village atop and gives a beautiful vista over the Salerno bay. The roads to get there don't fit normal cars. All cars around there wear the signs of wars against stone walls and crazy turns up mountain roads.

The slopes here are grown to Aglianico - a famous red grape of the area of Campania in general, and to Piedirosso, a varietal that can be used to soften the Aglianico a bit and to give it a lighter character (above is Piedirosso which is trained in "pergola"). There were a few grapes left on the vine to our sons' delight and from being bored with the situation they lighted up and ended up enjoying maybe even more than us!

 When you see the slopes you realize the amount of work that goes into tending to the grapes in such a place. It's very rocky, vines are on steep terraced slopes, this year they suffered from the same dampness that we experienced up here in Tuscany. No irrigation is used and the farm is even organic.

The wines were delightful and so was our hostess and owner Patrizia. Along with the tasting of 4 wines come local produce as olive oil, cheeses and more... This day was by far better than the touristy Capri. We relaxed, talked and enjoyed every moment. Do the same!

Our visit to the Amalfi coast this time only included the Southern coast line as we had just 2 days. Next time it'll be the Northern side with Sorrento, Pompei, and, who knows, maybe we could find a local Limoncello producer to visit?!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Love at first sip!

One of the things that trill me the most when I meet people on the tours I run is to hear the life stories of my guests. I’m fascinated to know who they are, where they are from, what they do (OMG, so many jobs out there I didn’t realize existed) to how they met or unmet their significant others. There’s always something new to learn and that makes it exciting!

I once before attempted to write about how Pierre and I met, because it is indeed a very sweet story that must be told. I called it a drunk romance, but in fact we are for the most time quite sober so I'm summing it up quickly and changing the title!
It was back in 2009 and I was running day tours to various regions and every day was like mentioned atop – a discovery of people and a sharing of wine stories in the Tuscan wine country. One morning, as usual, I’m picking up my group of people who are yet unknown to me and we head out to the Chianti Classico region. On the tour is also a French wine maker and I’m a bit nervous thinking he could come with questions I couldn’t answer. Luckily he kept low profile for the most part and I could proceed normally with my tour explaining the area to people with and without prior knowledge about wine. Pierre did ask me what Chianti meant, something we still joke about today – as I wasn’t quite sure and said something along the lines of it being a place name for the district with probable Etruscan origins. I wasn’t completely convinced myself of the correctness of the answer, but luckily it proved to be quite right.
Second day went to Montalcino with a new group of future friends. Pierre was with me for 3 days and so this second day was pleasant as the group was smaller and we had a better chance of talking. I discovered that Pierre was studying Master of Wine and head enologist of a winery in St. Emilion – that was why he had come to Florence to study Italian wines.
The third day was a discovery of San Gimignano’s white wines. Again we had a new group of fellow wine tourists, and Pierre and I definitely had a good feeling going on. The group was very animated (and quite drunk by the end of the day). Pierre attempted to see the bottling room at Panizzi winery to which he was shown to the bathroom (little incomprehension of his charming French accent). That provided us all with some good laughs.
After the tour ended back in Florence Pierre and I went for a glass of wine at my favorite wine bar La Volpe e L’Uva and had a chance to talk and get to know each other. We tasted a few different wines together. It was definitely love at first sip!

And so this is how the story begins for us 2 winos. For a year Skype was really useful to keep us in contact between Bordeaux and Tuscany. Frequent trips were made back and forth. Pierre finally wraps up his work situation and moves to Tuscany, but not before proposing! And so out the window with my independent woman “I’m never gonna get married”-crap. Two little boys later here we are, happily living our common life wrapped in good wines and foods in the midst of Tuscany. Best thing is that we both get to share our passion through our travel agency “Grape Tours” through which we now both run wine tours in Tuscany and in France (that would be me and Pierre on the grapes:)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

4 day full immersion Tuscan Wine Tour!

Last week we hosted 4 wonderful couples from the US for our new 4-day Tuscan Wine Tour program, a first-time experience for us - and it was simply a wonderful week!
We picked up our guests in Florence on a real warm Monday evening - meeting in the Piazzale Michelangelo in the shade of the David statue. On the way into the Tuscan country side we got to know each other briefly and we checked our new friends into their hotel and made sure their dinner reservation was taken care of.
The next 4 days we toured all the historical Tuscan wine regions, visiting small wineries around San Gimignano, Chianti Classico, Montepulciano and Montalcino, enjoying wonderful hosts with colorful stories, wines and great foods wherever we went.
At the end of the trip we felt like friends and, in fact, next year we'll plan a trip to Bordeaux together.
This experience was inspiring and we definitely want to propose it in the future for real enophiles like ourselves :)

Despite the intense July heat, we managed to keep the van cool, cellars were cool, and so were our fantastic wine producers! We met with the smallest and most reputable wine producers in Tuscany, who were happy to get off the hot fields with a good excuse of presenting their realities to our eno-curious guests.

Here are a few photos of our week with a big thanks to our very special new friends from Texas & Washington DC!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dear Blog, I haven't forgotten about you...

I almost forgot how crazy it gets once our season starts. We are out every day seeing to all the thirsty people - and then at home looking after 3 energetic kids. Yeah life is really hectic at times, but when you get to do what you love it's all very much worth it.

I wanted to share our Special Events at the Tuscan Wine School in Florence that I'm really excited about. I hope to see plenty of you there - remember they are basically free - you only need to bring a bottle of (your favorite) wine! Tell your friends about it and come numerous!!!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Welcome season 2013!

First signs of spring are here and we welcome a new season for travelers to Tuscany! In fact, in this past week we've started the first wine tours and opened up the wine schools. We are very excited because we have a great team of friendly faces and knowledgable people with us this year. As many of you may have sensed our network is big but our company is quite small. It takes a great deal of willingness and multitasking to be on our team.

So we've decided that we're going to drown the economic crisis in wine and go forth head strong... Are you with us? In wine we believe!!!

Please check out this wonderful video that explains the concept of our Tuscan Wine Schools - and give your feed-back, if you like. I'm totally excited about it and hand a big thank you to Bubbly Studio in Paris for the great work.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cook Like a Tuscan Mamma!

Cooking classes for travelers in Italy is really really popular. Most people I've met over the years officially come to Italy for the art & history - but really they are on a FOOD & WINE mission, eating their way through the country. And what a shame not to take the experience of some Italian cooking back home!

The other day we went into Florence to finalize our new Tuscany activity: Cook Like a Tuscan Mamma. Personally I love wine & food, and I'm fascinated by people who can make either and magically have excellent end results (not quite the success-rate when I venture into the kitchen to fetch dinner!).

In Tuscany there's a myriad of people offering cooking classes out there, so my idea is to scout out the best Mammas and Papas - to sort of certify the quality by my standards. Perhaps I should explain that better so it doesn't sound like I'm completely full of myself. I apply the same sort of analytic criteria I look at when I go to restaurants or wineries these days. I judge for myself whether the foods are fresh, seasonal and of high quality. If I love the ambience or not - clean & cozy. If the people are educated, personable and friendly. 

And, of course, I'ld say fundamental for a cooking class is to participate in the cooking and to discuss ingredients and cooking methods, so one ends up having a great experience and new skills (and a full belly!). 

I'll leave you with some appetizing photos of our Tuscan Mamma in Florence. The web-site to book a class is: If you know of any phenomenal cooking classes in Tuscany that you think I should know of, email me on!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Let 2013 begin...

New Years to me feels like getting a new chance in life. We now get to look forward to 365 blank days in the calendar and fill them up with events that make up our future. It's so exciting to plan for and to see what other events destiny might have in hand for us.

Our holidays in Italy were marked by relax, lots of foods and cozy family time. And, of course, we had plenty of occasions to try out our new Jollie wine - Yum!

Website for our wine: 

Here's my annual picture of the kiddos. This year with the addition of little Ollie on the left. Louise is in the middle holding the bottle of Jollie - and Ju is on the right not at all interested in the camera...