Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Wine in the Apuan Alps

We're back in Tuscany for the holidays. The trip from Nice to Florence offers the most spectacular views of sea, medieval seaside- and hilltop villages, and the mountains inland. One area that I've always wanted to visit is the Northwestern area of Tuscany also known as the Apuan Alps. Yup, that's right, where no other than Michelangelo got his marble for e.g. the David from. In fact, summer or winter, these alps always show their white marble excavations (may look like snow from a distance) and as you approach Carrara you see the many marble shops and industry that have developed especially in post war times - so not all of Carrara is very pretty to look at. Surely when Michelangelo came here to choose his perfect block of marble it must have been quite enchanting, but he did have to wait 8 months for it to ship to Florence, a trip that today could be done in less than 2 hrs!

It's no news that this also is a great region to grow vines, but because of the terrain being mountainous and often only accessible by foot (not allowing tractors), the size of vineyards and wineries tend to be quite small. We met Emanuele of Terre Apuane for a tasting of his 5 wines obtained from 5 ha of vineyards surrounding the hills around the village of Carrara.
His is truly a one-man winery! Emanuele tends to the old vines himself, and is just the authentic vintner you've always dreamt of meeting (if you have!). As we got talking it dawned upon me that he's a realist in farming. Hence neither organic nor conventional. A good sane combination, not compromising on nature nor quality of wine, intervening only if absolutely necessary to protect both the vines and the end consumer. I do like that concept, so we'll definitely see more of Emanuele in the future! And there will definitely be one of his wines in our next wine club shipment!

Do note that the white on these pictures is not snow, but marble!

As mentioned 5 wines and only 10.000 bottles of wine made each year. The 2 whites both have Vermentino (1 of which also has the local Albarola), and 3 reds - including a Vermentino Nero and a Massaretta blend. I've already touched the Vermentino Nero in this blog before, but Albarola & Massaretta are completely new here. 
The former is a white grape indigenous to this area and Cinque Terre, but apparently quite similar to Bianchetto Genovese - so also present in other areas along Liguria. 
The latter, Massaretta, is also known as Barsaglina - a red variety also native to this Northern Tuscan area known locally for giving good tannin and color. 

This time of year it's time for pruning. You may see the Mediterranean sea in the background despite the grey December day. And the dog called Fiaba was just a delight.

Can you spot the hidden vineyard worker? Yeah, that's Julian hard at work with bringing vine cuttings to a nearby fire.

If you wanna visit Carrara, get more inspiration and practical info on Georgette Jupe's blog post.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Map guide for visiting my selection of Tuscany's wineries

So it's almost time for the holidays and a time to be generous, so my contributions is this little winery guide you can use when in Tuscany.
Every region in the World seems to have different etiquette for visiting wineries, so let me try and sum it up for you how it works in Tuscany - just take it as a little piece of advice.

How to get there?
You can either join an organised winery tour where appointments at wineries are set up for you - best company for that is obviously (!) Tuscan Wine Tours by Grape Tours
Otherwise bus it to e.g. Greve in Chianti, even though your selection of wineries walking distance from the village is limited. So should you want to seriously venture it on your own, better go by car. 

Internet (or GPS)
Have internet access so that you don't get lost and can use your google maps. Have a designated driver - it's not allowed to drink & drive in Italy, either.

Plan ahead
Generally, in Tuscany setting up an appointment at a winery before going is always a good idea.
Contact them before you go (you'll find email contacts on the map) and enquire about when you can visit them and any other useful info you might need from them (directions, tasting fees, etc). It will give the winery a good idea of your level of interest and you are more likely to find an open door and a friendly smile.

Can I just go without planning?
Sure, the big wineries have tasting facilities where you can just pop in for a quick tasting and don't necessarily want to go behind the scenes on cellar tours. Sorry, there aren't a whole lot of big wineries on the map below as I've tried to indicate the smaller and more special places.

Try to be punctual
so calculate your driving time to the approximate and then add some just in case of traffic or a wrong turn. A 15 minute delay is usually not frowned upon but more than that could be upsetting as the people you'll be meeting may have set aside time of their day to be with you. Make sure to have the winery phone number with you so that you can call in case you’re running late.

Once you’re at the winery, you’ll usually be in the good hands of owners/staff who speak if not perfect English then enough English to explain their products. In worst case scenario, there will be a brochure translated into English. 

Signs (or lack of)
When you tour the wine regions, you may be looking for large signs saying “wine tasting”, etc. These are becoming more common, but mostly the wineries are signed solely by their name.
Sometimes you’ll see signs with “vendita diretta” meaning direct sales. This indicates that the winery has a shop front at the winery and is interested in getting visitors.

Most winery visits last from 1 to 2 hrs all depending on the set-up at the winery. They will differ as some take their time going to the vineyards and cellars, some in detail, others a bit more superficially.

Read up on the area you’re visiting before you go. At least you’ll have some basic knowledge to start off with. For example, learn the main grape varietals of an area. It’s quite easy and doesn’t require too much effort. You’ll seem prepared and it’s very much appreciated on the other side. 

Don’t over-plan!
The driving usually takes longer than expected and so do the winery visits. Don’t cram in too many appointments or you’ll end up getting stressed and running late at every place! A good average would be between 2 to 3 a day all depending on the vicinities of the places and how early you get going!

Take a lunch break
The classical lunch break in Italy is respected in a lot of different businesses, also at wineries. Most places will be closed between 1 and 3 pm. It's called "l'ora di pranzo”, so basically time for lunch. And even for us enthusiastic winery tourists its a good idea and take a break and enjoy a great local meal (remember that most restaurants stop serving food after 2.30 pm, so get there in time).

So here you go - a full list of great wineries to visit and a little note to accompany each one of them. Have fun & let me know how it goes!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Nice Wine Tours in France

It's just amazingly exciting when we get to work on a new project as the one that's filling our minds this winter. We get to research and plan for a new wine tour that we'll be starting promptly - this time from Nice, France.
So we've come up with the cunning name "Nice Wine Tours" and the site address is the same so I think the neatest part about our research is that we've found unfamiliar grape varietals, great wines and an unexploited territory (wine tour wise). In fact, the big part of our tours are going to head just outside of Nice to one of France's oldest AOC wine regions called Bellet - an area cultivated long ago by the Romans who had vineyards here.

So spread the word to anyone coming to Nice - one shouldn't leave this area without experiencing and tasting the wines at the small wineries in the hills around the city.

The brochure is ready to invade the hotels of Nice :)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

In the search of the best Pan-bagnat in Nice

Pan-bagnat has obsessed me a bit since our arrival in Nice. Let me explain what that is to those of you who haven't been to Nice yet. So if you don't feel like romanticising it, it's basically a tuna-sandwich (which I love anywhere), but, of course, I DO want to romanticise it since this special sandwich has deep origins in this area and has developed over time with local ingredients.

So pan-bagnat means wet bread (I suspect this is a Niçoise dialect, since it reminds me more of Italian than of French). Usually a crunchy white round bun (a baguette can also be used) is stuffed with all the ingredients that would otherwise go into a Niçoise salad, not always with actual lettuce. So the protagonist of the sandwich is tuna and/or anchovies with hard boiled egg. The vegetables used may vary from place to place but comprise tomato, red radish, celery, onion (various kinds used), cucumber, artichoke hearts, basil, black olives...olive oil & vinegar are used to amalgamate and stick all the ingredients together. The mixture makes the bread a bit soggy on the inside (hence the name), but the outside stays nice and crisp.

The pan-bagnat is omnipresent in Nice, so my mission is to search out the best places and systematically go visit and give my rating on the map you see below (however, I don't know how fast I'll be able to do this since we can't eat tuna-sandwiches every day!). So this is definitely going to be work in progress and the map will be adjourned with time. I would be happy to be joined by others who are going or have already gone (recently) to give me input, even though eventually I'm going to try and get to each place personally.

If you have any ideas to great places I've missed, please add your input in the comment section under this post and I'll look into it.

So let the pan-bagnat tour begin!

The red markers are the officially awarded the pan-bagnat Label (usually proudly displayed) - please see their web-site for more (English version not available yet) - if you know some French you can lurk off the recipes on the site.

The green markers are other places that we've either just bumped into, but for the most part I've googled like crazy and asked locals.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bollito misto @ Officina della Cucina Popolare

One of the things that are so great about the Tuscan cuisine is the wholesome philosophy behind it. Traditionally Tuscany was a rural & simple place and even in an age when things have very much globalised, it remains quite untouched and uncontaminated.
The locals are hanging on to traditions as if they have the almighty knowledge that life is best lived the way it's always been lived around Tuscany. They seem content with what they have or what they can get locally.
As a visitor this is quite mesmerising. I think that's partly what keeps visitors coming back to Tuscany year after year - simply to experience an authentic countryside, culture & cuisine. Eating in Tuscany (and I think in Italy in general) is such a big deal. It's not just a means of feeding yourself, but it's all about how you do it and understanding what you're eating. Mealtimes can be almost ritual-like with all the different courses, their order and the understanding of what comes first and last, dos and don'ts and so forth. It's fundamental for locals and fascinating for visitors.
Menus change seasonally, at least in serious restaurants that reflect the area they're in - and a big deal in Tuscany, I would say. That's the joy of eating out and travelling for food (which is something we do a lot!). Or just waiting for the next season to come along with its range of fresh products.
At the moment, for example, you'll perhaps find something on the menus called "bollito misto" (boiled & mixed are the 2 words used for this dish). The philosophy behind the dish is the recurring one of non-wastage so nose-to-tale cooking.
Butcher Dario Cecchini in Panzano is an excellent spokesperson for this philosophy and shows his guests a map of the cow to see where exactly meats come from that they'll be enjoying.

Here comes some photos of the preparation of Bollito Misto - a real delicacy for Tuscans especially in winter when temperatures call for something hearty. Usually served up as you can see below in a large soup bowl and with different sauces to dip your meat in.

Wine suggestion - something red & fresh. Why not a Dolcetto d'Alba? But, of course, if you want to stick to Tuscan stuff a good Chianti will do it, too.

(photo credits: Matteo Vecchioni, chef/owner at Officina della Cucina Popolare)

Every Sunday at Officina della Cucina Popolare you can try this fabulous dish. This is our restaurant in Colle di Val'Elsa, halfway between Florence and Siena. If you are too far away to join us and want to try to have a go at making your own, I suggest you have a look at my friend Judy Witts' blog recipe.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The hills of Nice - a wine region called Bellet

In the hills of Nice lies a little wine region called Bellet where vineyards and wine making are some of the oldest in France. Vineyards are terraced and the soil is full of pebble stones, sand & clay. The area is kissed by the sun and benefits from fresh winds from the Alps and in the afternoon humid winds from the sea.
Bellet was one of the first regions in France rewarded with the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) in 1941. The area covers about 650 hectares, including 50 hectares currently grown to vineyards between an altitude of 200-300 meters above sea level (650-1000 feet).
Made up of family farms, the Bellet hills count around fifteen growers sensitive to the cult of tradition and high quality.
The AOC allows for a number of grape varieties, some of which are native to the area.
For the whites: Rolle (also known as Vermentino in Italy) with a small addition of Chardonnay
For reds and roses: the native Folle Noire (meaning the crazy black grape – probably named this way as it is quite temperamental), the native Braquet (light bodied and low yielding), Grenache & 
We're offering a joinable wine tour from Nice to Bellet for small groups from 2-8 people. Join us next time you're in Nice! 

Map of the area with some of the wineries

The road circles up and down to small hills with the narrowest possible roads (no drinking & driving possible here!)

Pebbly soils (puddingstone) give origin to the high quality wines

Incredible terraces easy to spot in the fall 

The native braquet grape in late August

Vines intertwined with olives that give great extra virgin olive oil

View to the North from where the tramontane winds come in to sooth the hot vineyards in summer

View on St. Paul de Vence, West of Bellet

Chateau de Bellet, one of the "larger" wineries of the region

And the other Chateau, namely Crémat, towards late afternoon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

So nice to be in Nice...

So we've arrived in Nice, the sun-kissed and Southernmost French city (with just enough Italian feel that I could feel at home, and just enough order so hubby could feel at home and at ease).
We're going to stay here over the next 3 months as we are planning for Nice Wine Tours and an apartment we are thinking about renting out. But for that to happen first we need time actually pull together some nice furniture and make it really nice and cozy, so more about this later on...
As soon as the boys fall into the new French pre-school rhythm, we may have time to roam about and discover the areas around here for ourselves. Please stay tuned for much much more while I give you a couple of pics from around the corner of the apartment.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Stars for dinner

One of the benefits of doing what we do is that we get to be guinea pigs and try things out to see if they are "good enough" for our guests. In fact, next year we are introducing a new top wine tour which will take our guests only to the very best wineries and restaurants in Tuscany. It'll be 4 days of intensive wine tasting and eating delicious foods, accommodation included (see more here). 
We never usually have the chance to go out in the evening, but luckily our fantastic day-care has started to offer pyjama-parties so that parents can go out. What perfect opportunity to try out a 2 star Michelin restaurant included in the top wine tour package - and another chance to celebrate my bday :)

A glass of Franciacorta while choosing what to eat...

My partner in crime! For him fish menu, for me veggie menu. White for him & red for me.

Langoustine, goose liver & mango (OMG! this was soooo good!)

The cabbages (just as good as it was beautiful)

Zolfini beans & onion of Certaldo

Ravioli, blue lobster, porcini mushrooms

Pumpkin, turnips, rice & almonds

Ravioli, porcini, terragon

Roots & tubers (OH thought I was dead and in heaven with this dish!)

Gaetano Trovato, the chef, artist and co-owner.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

40...celebrating those that have been and hopefully as many more to come...

This morning I awoke by a lovely email by my father who only writes me on special occasions such as this. I was quite touched of him telling me how he couldn't believe that 40 yrs ago he and my mum ran off to the hospital to have me a few hrs later...
We never really can imagine what our own kids will end up doing. We can only imagine we'll be influenced by what we experience when we or they grow up (& hope for the best!). Dad runs a small typography firm quite successfully. I still treat things quite graphically, even though that was my parents' job - not mine. He congratulated me (with hubby, of course) for our entrepreneurship in Italy and in France, resulting quite above expectations of what he thought 40 yrs ago at the hospital (but also overcoming my own expectations). Hopefully many more great years to come...

Today we went for a ride through Chianti. The weather was incredibly beautiful and just right for photography. So here are a few pictures from today - hope you enjoy!