Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A very clever mistake - how Antonia started to make the famous "Buccia di Rospo" at Corzano & Paterno.

"An expert is a (wo)man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field" (Niels Bohr) - and this is the story of the dairy of Corzano & Paterno and the cheese maker Antonia who invented by pure mistake a very unique cheese called Buccia di Rospo (translates to Toad Skin). 

Antonia is hands on in her little artisanal dairy where every cheese is formed by hand. She's working away on a batch of pecorino cheese while telling me her life story...

Antonia came to Italy from Britain as a young woman because of her love story with Aljoscha who is presently the farm manager of Corzano & Paterno. They had 5 kids and while looking after the family and farm, Antonia decided to start using the milk of the sheep that were just roaming the land keeping the grass low, and she started learning how to make the Pecorino cheese that Tuscany's famous for.

But the best of all are the cheeses that she's experimented with creating her own incredible cheeses that are totally unique and totally yummy. Here are a few photos of the first steps of the making of Buccia di Rospo...

Today the cheeses (and wines) of Corzano & Paterno are famous and really sought after and can only be found in the very best cheesemongers or restaurants in Florence. Otherwise one must make one's way up the hills behind San Casciano (very much worth it!) and, of course, if you're doing our popular Super Chianti tour it's part of the package to visit the winery and taste the fabulous cheeses!

Here's a 2 min video where Antonia tells how she "invented" Buccia di Rospo:

Corzano Dairy from Rebecca Wine in Tuscany on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

How to go to a restaurant in Tuscany and eat like a Tuscan!

In Italy there are many unwritten dining rules that are good to know about so you can fit in when you're travelling in Tuscany or the rest of Italy and want to avoid risen eyebrows thrown in your direction. So here are my tips so you can be cool and blend in a bit...

A travellers guide to Italian restaurant etiquette

When can you eat?
Restaurants typically open their kitchen from 12.30 pm - 2.30 pm and from 7.30 pm to 9.30 pm. Only touristy places would be open in the middle of the afternoon. Italians stick to proper meal times and usually have lunch at around 1 pm and dinner at around 9 pm, so if you get there outside of these times you'll either be alone or eating with other tourists.

How to dress?
Normal! You don't have to dress up unless you are going to a fancy restaurant. So don't overdress but don't underdress either (and this is really a general suggestion). Flip-flops and short shorts will make you stand out anywhere you go in Italy even if it's ever so comfortable!

If you go to a restaurant, it's expected that you order at least a couple of courses. In all restaurants you'll find multiple choices under the categories of:

This is your starter that easily could consist in some cured meats and cheeses, and why not a bit of bruschetta (pronounce "ch" as "k") or chicken liver pate! It's really easy to fill up on these, so go slow on the bread!

These are your pasta or soup dishes. Nothing beats a good home made pasta dish (even if rare nowadays). Pastas have thousands of different names around Italy. Look for hand rolled Pici, Malfatti, Tagliatelle, Ravioli, etc. Ask "sono fatti in casa?" (are they home-made?). You'll also find soups such as Ribollita (winter) or Pappa al Pomodoro (summer) that are made with stale bread and real hearty (and not very liquid).

Meats! (or fish if you're at the sea side)
They can be cooked up in a stew in a traditional way. Tripe is often found on the menu in Tuscany, so is pigeon, rabbit, hare or wild boar.
We also serve up some good traditional pork or beef, the latter is often grilled slightly (so quite rare) and don't count on getting it any other way!

This is a simple side dish that you would usually order to accompany your secondo that usually doesn't have any greens served with it. Please notice that this is when we eat our salad.

In Tuscany the desserts tend to be quite simple, just like the rest of the menu. Very traditional are the Cantuccini bisquits served with a sweet wine called Vin Santo. Crostata is a dry pie with a jam. Also often on menus are tiramisù or English trifle. You may also find Panna Cotta and a chocolate pudding of some kind.

You're not expected to order all courses...2 savoury courses would be acceptable, ending with a dessert. You order your savoury courses at the very beginning, you usually should wait to order your dessert until you've finished eating your savoury courses.

So how long does this all take? Typically a couple of hours, so don't be in a hurry - sit back and relax, talk to each other - this is socialising time Italian way!

Once you've ordered (and don't try to change the recipes - if there's something you don't like eat around it or order something else), bread will usually be served at the same time as water & wine and the dining experience can begin!

Olive Oil
Restaurants will usually put olive oil on the table only once it's required to put on your food (in case you ordered a soup or a salad, etc). You're not supposed to ask for a plate and pour the olive oil out in it. If you do, it'll make most waiters freak! So no filling up on bread before your food arrives, if you are hungry order a starter and hope for a quick arrival!
So what if you do want to taste the olive oil with bread? In Tuscany the bread is usually saltless, so take a piece of bread, sprinkle a little salt and drizzle olive oil on top of it. Enjoy!
N.B. Olive oil on restaurant tables in Italy should be labeled with traceability info on it.
N.B.B. in Tuscany butter is not served with the bread, please don't ask for it!

Balsamic vinegar comes from Modena and in any other region you can't expect that a restaurant will carry it. In any case, the balsamic served is usually of a pretty scarce quality - the industrial stuff - and it is intended only for salads. We don't pour olive oil and vinegar on a plate and dip bread into the mix. We think that's weird and look at tourists doing it as if they've gone mad!
If a restaurant in Tuscany doesn't carry balsamic vinegar, they'll most probably have wine vinegar.

Water comes in 2 versions: carbonated or flat "con o senza gas" (not talking of the human kind!). There's no such thing as tap water, even though in most places water wouldn't be dangerous to drink. Surely, water from the tap in Tuscany tastes a bit calcarious...but it would be fine. However, Italians are the largest consumers of bottled water in Europe even though there is an economic crisis in the country and it is true that bottled water costs 2000 times as much tab water! So the point is, don't even ask for tap water as it is not commonly thought as drinkable - and you would be thought to be a cheapskate!
Drink water or wine. Soft drinks are scarcely found, usually not very cold and ice cubes are not commonly available to cool them down any further. Besides, they tend to be more expensive than a fairly decent house wine (more about house wine later on). Italians don't drink sugary sodas with a meal so if you don't want to stand out...
If you are eating pizza, it's ok to order beer ;)
Cocktails are consumed pre-dinner for an event called "aperitivo" that you can have at a bar typically starting from 6.30 pm until 8.30 pm. Usually drinks are pretty reasonably priced at this time and come with some bits of food to soak up the alcohol.
Coffee is consumed only at the end of the meal (also more on coffee later on).

House wine
Often I'm asked what the house wine is. I would have no clue, apart from the fact that it's the cheapest half-decent wine a restaurant can find and as it is the drink they sell the most of it's also the one that they will want to make the most margin on.
Having worked in restaurants, I would recommend you demand a wine in a bottle. If it's an "open" wine it really could be anything, as for example a blend made from unfinished bottles and carafes that may have been open for days :(
Safest choice is probably to choose a wine from the wine list (most restaurants will have a few choices), and if you don't finish the wine you can ask for the cork and bring it with you for later.

Coffee will be served after dessert - not with dessert. Even if you ask for both at the same time! So if you really want to drink something with your dessert, you could ask for a dessert wine (and those can be pretty delicious).
The coffee you would drink after a meal is typically an espresso. You may feel like a cappuccino because there's a bit more substance in your cup, but NO that's against Italian tradition (not good for digestions!) so if you don't want to upset your waiter, just have coffee "caffe" the Italian way. It is however, completely acceptable to ask for a shot of Grappa in your coffee (called Caffe Corretto).

The cheque - "il conto, per favore"
Ask for the bill when you are done - it doesn't automatically come when you have nothing more coming at you. You may want to ask for coffee and the ticket at the same time. They will come separately, but at least it will be in the making and you won't have to sit around forever waiting to get eye contact with your waiter. If, on the other hand, you're in no hurry to get on you can sit around for a while and enjoy the evening - usually nobody will bother you for a while...and sometimes free after dinner shots (of scarse quality) may come your way!

Extras on cheque
Coperto - "pane & coperto" is a normal fee you'll find in any Italian restaurant. I know it's kind of hard to get your head around, but instead of building costs like bread, table cloth and use of cutlery into the price of the dishes there's this separate fee which may vary from 1 to 5 euro per person. The normal cost is usually 2-3 euro per person.
Servizio - this I find to be the worse, really, and you'll notice it only in really touristy places. This is just an extra 10% fee that the owner feels like charging for the service given. Please notice that the fee doesn't go directly to the service, but more so it goes directly to the owner. Sure, waiters in Italy are paid a decent minimum pay, but it's not stellar. So if you like the service, leave a couple of coins on the table for him or her.

Tipping is not mandatory in Italy, nor in any place around Europe if I'm not wrong. However, it is not frowned upon and often the waiters are hoping for that little extra to round up their next monthly pay. You should by no means feel obliged and it doesn't matter to tip a certain percentage. What I usually would do (if I liked the experience) is to round up the bill. It comes to 76 euro, leave 80. If paying with a credit card, you can't tip on the card. So dig into your pockets and find some nice heavy euro coins :)

Buon appetito!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Wine Festivals in Tuscany

Wine festivals are always a great excuse to visit a specific village around Tuscany and meet wineries and taste wines that we might otherwise have overlooked. Some festivals are open to the public and anyone can attend, other fairs are professional for people of the trade or real passionates.
There are festivals year round, so here's a list in chronological order. Please remember that the specific dates might vary slightly from year to year, but usually are around the same time.


These are the fairs generally organised during February and are "anteprime" so early presentations of the new vintages that are going to be released on the market in the current year. These are strictly wine related fairs held usually inside the villages in halls or heated tents.
Usually journalists and the like will be invited on a first exclusive day, after which the fairs are open to people of the trade. You must get an invitation to participate. If you are serious wino, you may consider mingling in during one of these fairs. Invitations can be obtained either from participating wineries or through the local Consorzio that is also the organiser of the event.
The dates for 2015 are not released yet, but you can contact the different Consorzio for more info:

Chianti Classico è in Florence in Stazione Leopolda: Consorzio del Chianti Classico
Anteprima della Vernaccia in San Gimignano: Consorzio della Vernaccia di San Gimignano
Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino: Consorzio del Brunello di Montalcino
Anteprima del Vino Nobile in Montepulciano: Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Anteprima dei Vini della Costa Toscana in Lucca: Associazione grandi cru della costa Toscana


The village festivals with the wine theme are for the general public with wineries surrounding just one single village. Not all villages will have one, but they are followed quite popularly even by great wineries as it is an event to gather in festive circumstances. These fairs tend to be in the open so around the streets or piazzas of a village. Often there'll be music and other street stalls and perhaps even dinners organised with wine tastings.
Costs of these fairs may vary, but usually 10-15 euro will get you a glass that you can use to sample as many wines as you like for the entire duration of the fair. And you get to keep the glass as a souvenir!

Mid May Wine Town in Florence is a big wine event that spreads out in different locations around Florence. Check the program online that changes from year to year.
Last Sunday of May: Cantine Aperte - special Sunday where a lot of wineries will be open to the public and do tours of their estates, accompanied often by foods and music.

First week-end: Radda nel Bicchiere is a 2-day wine festival that takes place in the main street and Piazza of Radda in Chianti and will feature wineries from around the village only.
Second week-end: Pentecoste a Castellina is another 2-day wine festival with the Chianti Classico wineries surrounding the village. They will set up their stands through the characteristic Via delle Volta (a vaulted medieval road).
Third week-end: Bio Pride in Gaiole in Chianti (in the old Ricasoli cellars). This is a new festival for organic wine makers and produce which to my knowledge is new from 2014. We'll see how it is!
From June-July: Wednesdays with Nobile in Montepulciano's Piazza Grande featuring a couple of different wineries every Wednesday at 6 pm with a local food.
From June-July: Melodia del Vino - classical concerts in Tuscany's big famous wineries.

Calici di Stelle is on August 10, the day of San Lorenzo and is an evening tasting which happens in a few different villages (I haven't found a complete list of events). The idea is to drink local wines in the evening when it gets cool enough to actually drink wine, and to watch the stars and to dig the local culture.

Second week-end: Chianti Classico Expo in Greve in Chianti is a festival over 3 days: Friday, Saturday & Sunday in the central Piazza del Mercato.
Third week-end: Vino al Vino in Panzano in Chianti is an intense week-end of excellent wines in the very small piazza in Panzano.
September is also harvest time, and some wineries will let you participate in the grape harvest. Check out this list of places that would welcome you.


VinItaly is Italy's largest wine fair that takes place in Verona in spring (in 2015 it'll be from the 22nd to the 25th of March).  It's really a trade show, but it's open to anyone interested in visiting it. This is a great occasion to taste wines from Italy's 20 different regions. Each region has a space dedicated to its producers and there are literally thousands of wineries there pouring their wines and ready for a little chat. You can get free tickets if you have friends who have a winery who's going to the show, so ask around, or you can pay the ticket to enter (it's around a 50 euro ticket per day!)


In March Taste in Florence is a big food fair at the Stazione Leopoldo that involves large parts of the city with special food related events during a week-end. This is a great time to come if you are a foodie and want to dive into marvellous foods of Tuscany and Italy.

During the year Tuscany has plenty of food festivals that are called Sagre. They usually have a specific food theme - could be anything from something that's in season, is particular to the area or just for the sake of having a village feast. Here's a list in Italian of the ones going on during the month.


And remember that you can learn about Tuscany's wines and foods in English every day in Florence or Siena at the Tuscan Wine School!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Favorite Wineries: San Polino in Montalcino

A frequently asked question in my daily correspondence on arranging wine tours for future guests has to do with what wineries we’ll end up selecting for their tour. Some people could maybe worry that the wineries they’ll visit are touristy or not the most famous or the most glamorous…

On the contrary! After years of travelling around our area we’ve got our favourites of high quality wine producers that we’ve established excellent relationships with. We are wine lovers ourselves, and hence the winery we choose is of fundamental importance.

For us the best wineries to visit are usually the smaller, family owned and run ones. Nothing gets better than feeling the passion that drives an art and a product. We love wines that represent their area and the personality of who has created them. Having said this, we enjoy wineries of other dimensions also - wineries that have some sort of uniqueness to them - and above all wineries that are not crowded and pleasant to visit.

I want to share the story of Katia and Gigi, owners of one of our favorite wineries. The fact that these 2 individuals are of different origin (British and Italian) and that they have had all sorts of life experiences prior to entering agriculture in Montalcino gives them a unique and balanced view on vine growing. 

In 1997 the Consorzio of Brunello di Montalcino decided to give out a few new quotas of Brunello acreage to any farmer in Montalcino who wanted to farm for the geographical DOCG wine of the area. Katia and Gigi were at that moment just farming a few olives and a bit of wine for home use - but decided to jump at the opportunity. From the very beginning they decided as some of the first in the area to farm organically and to understand their land and plants in detail.

Their first harvest was in 2001 from very young vines and the first vintage counted something like 1000 bottles, so less than a hundred cases! So I met Katia and Gigi in 2006 when the 2001 Brunello was released - and immediately I fell in love with their story and their wine. Oh my, I wish I had kept some - it was so good that it's gone! Since then their knowledge and experience have increased year by year in tact with the greatness of the wines.

I've followed this farm develop over the years (sometimes with weekly visits), always thinking it would do great things. I feel pride in seeing these people being successful in producing what I consider one of the best wines of the region.

Here are some pictures from my most recent visit on a wine tour:

Katia and Gigi are really fantastic people, humble as can be - a visit to their winery will stay imprinted in your memory for years!

Gigi at San Polino from Rebecca Wine in Tuscany on Vimeo.

These are some of the other creatures you'll meet at San Polino!