Monday, July 28, 2014

Favorite Wineries: Montecalvi in Greve in Chianti

What commons the wineries I love, is the passion and dedication with which the owners run them. Here is Jackie, owner of Montecalvi, a winery that I was familiar with already back in the day when her father ran it as I was working in a wine bar in Florence and serving the wine Montecalvi by the glass (which is almost to decades ago  - yikes!). Since then I've followed Jackie's progress, not only producing some of the best boutique wines but also successfully turning the winery into an organic farm.
We visit Jackie's winery during our tours, so you could be lucky to visit if you come on one of our Tuscan Wine Tours.
You can also ship her wines back home (EU & US):

Monday, July 21, 2014

Favorite Wineries: Castello dei Rampolla in Panzano in Chianti

Castello dei Rampolla is on a historical property called Santa Lucia in Faulle in the Conca d'Oro valley just South of Panzano in Chianti. The property has been in the family of the Di Napoli Rampolla for a few centuries, and after the the passing of Alceo (whom the most recent wine of fame was named after), the winery has been taken care of by siblings Maurizia a Luca.
The winery was the first in the region to go in the way of organic and biodynamic growing already in the mid-90'ies, and Maurizia and Luca have followed in the footsteps of their father. These people really live like that, too. They drive a Prius and are completely unpretentious even though they can boast the fact they live in a castle! In any case, the property is preserved old-style with no intention of glamourising it.

Here you see the vineyard in April just before the bud-break - Panzano in the back-ground. Vines are planted densely to create competition and promote quality. Being in Chianti Classico, this is the wine that is primarily made in the cellar, so most vineyards are grown to Sangiovese. But there is also Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc & Malvasia.

A detail of the property in the month of July...

And here you see the vines in July when the canopy has developed fully, and now the next step is to capture the rays of the sun and transform them into sugar inside the grapes.

To protect the plants, fresh spring water and manure is "dynamized" inside this biodynamic system that moves the water around in circular motions to activate enzymes and create natural sprays to apply to the vines in the vineyard to vitalise plants and protect them the natural way.

A relatively new feature in Castello dei Rampolla is the reintroduction of cement vats for ageing and then the use of terracotta vases like this one to make a completely natural wine that has no addition of sulphites. 

The cellar master is Marcus.

Maurizia is a busy lady, but when she does find the time to do a wine tour with us it is the most outstanding experience. She's incredibly down to earth and fun to be with. She evidently loves the wines and enjoys sharing the experience.

The wines made are Trebianco (a white wine made in the style of a red wine), Chianti Classico made with Sangiovese with a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Sammarco (takes its name from a third sibling who passed in an accident) which is a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon and one of the historical Super Tuscans. Ultimately d'Alceo (named after the father's vineyard) made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot - this is celebrated wine since it was first released in very limited quantities, even reaching 100 points with the 2008 vintage!

This is the Alceo vineyard.

Castello dei Rampolla wines are distributed and can be found in a lot of different countries. Just in case you want to get your hands on some of that 2008 100 point vintage, you can ship it from here:

Friday, July 11, 2014

Florence for Foodies: The New Central Market in Florence

This post is about the newly opened first floor of the Mercato Centrale in Florence that you should definitely pay a visit to when visiting Florence. This space used to be where the fruit and vegetable vendors were, but the space was too large and it lost its sense as Florence has increased its tourism and locals are no longer the dominating population of the central area.
The bottom floor remains the same with many vendors of fresh foods, however very much geared towards tourists. And the second floor has been transformed into a very trendy food-mecca - which Florence very much deserves.
Open every day from 10 am to midnight you can walk around and purchase little bits of delicious foods and sit wherever you please. There's also an upstairs seating area if you prefer a more restaurant-like situation with service and all.
I was awed by the place and it's very 2014-vibe. What a great place to dwell in foods!!!
A few observations:
The theme is mainly Tuscan, but not exclusively as also great foods from other areas around Italy are served such as pizza or mozzarella di bufala. The wine shop features exclusively wines from Chianti Classico (maybe a bit boring?), whereas the beer shop features one of Italy's biggest commercial beer maker Moretti...(could have been nice if it featured small breweries from around Tuscany, don't you reckon?)
The cooking school (Lorenzo de' Medici - see picture) looks very nice and professional with room for plenty of students. Daily courses are run - either a cooking demonstration "Lunch or Dinner with the Chef" of an hour and a half with a tasting of the dish prepared (30 euros) or 3 hr full menu hands-on cooking class (130 euros).
The wine school (Enoscuola - no picture) is run by Luca Gardini (who is not Tuscan nor personally present) under a manifesto that we couldn't really get our heads around, so apparently wines should have "simplicity, frankness, drinkability, clean taste and sensitivity" - I thought this to be quite hilarious and much more a marketing strategy than an actual help for people to learn how to taste. Having said this, each to his or her own...I am, of course, biased - viva la Tuscan Wine School!

So here's the map of the places you'll find - underneath with a picture of almost everyone of them (didn't get the fish-vendor as I visited on a Monday - and, of course, there's no fresh fish on Mondays)... I tried to match the heading colours with those on the map - not totally successfully!

La carne & i salumi - the meats and cold cuts:

La birreria - the pub

Il ristorante - the (Tuscan) restaurant:

La scuola di cucina - the cooking school:

La mozzarella di bufala - buffalo mozzarella

La pizzeria - need I translate?

Il lampredotto - Florentine tripe

La pasta fresca - fresh pasta

L'enoteca - the wine shop/bar

Il pane & la pasticceria - bread & pastry shop

Il cioccolato e il gelato - chocolate & ice cream

La torrefazione / bar - the coffee shop

I tramezzini - Italian sandwiches

Il fritto e le polpette - fried and meatballs

La frutta e le verdure - fruits and vegetables:

I formaggi - cheeses

Here's the funky web-site of the market. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Artisan Coffee Roaster in Siena

Caffè Fiorella is a fantastic coffee shop in Siena loved by the locals and a place that we visit on our Savor Siena tour. It's not just a coffe shop though, it's a proper coffee roastery or Torrefazione as we say in Italian which is run by owner Francesco who inherited the profession and passion from his father.

I meet Francesco outside of Siena where he has his historic roaster that used to be his fathers'. What distinguishes the coffee of Francesco from the others is the quality of the beans - he buys only the best, then his secret blend (which of course is not revealed entirely but generally is 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta), and the fact that he roasts the beans every week so they are as fresh as can be.

He only sells his coffee at his own coffee shop where you can either buy a bag or taste a cup of the finest espressos you'll have in Italy.

The beans before toasting.

Here the beans have already been toasted and are cooling down.

Francesco is checking the quality.

And here he checks the progression of the next batch roasting. The beans roast for around 20 mins at 200 degrees Celsius.

Francesco with a bag of his own brand Fiorella.

Back at the coffee shop in Siena I enjoy a cup of fantastic caffè (espresso). Francesco works here when he's not busy roasting coffee. His wife runs the show, too!

I wish there was a way to capture smells on camera, but you can just imagine the intense flavour of roasted coffee beans.
I highly recommend you visit Caffè Fiorella next time you're in Siena!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Butcher for a day

If you really love meat and really want to immerse yourself into the world of great meat with world famous butcher Dario Cecchini, it's not enough to just visit his butcher shop in Panzano in Chianti. You HAVE TO do the special program called butcher for a day, where you will be introduced to Dario's philosophy, meet his people and behind the curtains of the operation of the coolest butcher shop ever!

Dario explains how he's been a butcher for 250 yrs (or at least personally the last 40 of them) as the profession was his farther's and his father's father's. He emphasises the respect for the animal, how important it is to first give the beasts a decent life time in good conditions, then a fairly humane death, and lastly a butcher who understands to use every piece without wastage.

Butcher for a day is a day of engaging in and understanding this concept, so the first thing we do is to hop into Dario's jeep and drive down to the pasture where the Chianina cows are hanging out.

We're accompanied by Nicola, one of the guys on Dario's great team who was a real estate agent in the real world. Then he had a close to fatal cycling accident and as saw his life flashed in front of him, he decided even after age 50 to change the course and dedicate himself to food - his greatest passion in life.

We're standing amidst the Conca d'Oro valley just South of Panzano in Chianti. Those vineyards we just drove through and you see in the background belong to the Fontodi estate, the biggest producer in this valley of Panzano that is almost exclusively farmed organically.

Tuscany is famous for it's Chianina race meat - these beautiful white animals you see in the next pictures. Well, the Chianina is an ancient race in Tuscany and was used in the past as tractors, so they were work cows and helped plough the fields. When they had lived a life of work and procreation, they would follow the natural order of things and be killed to feed the families living in the country side.

For this reason their meat was quite lean and didn't have the taste that we modern consumers associate with beef. In fact, the Chianina meat has a very particular flavour that you would have to get used to.
So it's important to understand that Chianina meat in Tuscany is actually not very common - there are very few breeders and the meat is very expensive. The word is used often to attract tourists to a menu, but there is often no traceability nor guarantee that the meat is indeed from Chianina.

Dario Cecchini himself keeps these Chianina for mere tradition and love for the animals. Here he gives them a life of around 7-8 yrs and then he slaughters them only at the end of their fertile life. This means that he only kills a couple a year and, in fact, this meat is not what ends up in the restaurant - it's for special occasions or friends (so make sure to sign up on the list of good friends :) )

Dario is no racist, he says - so it is not important for him to bring the Chianina beef to the table.
Dario's cattle is raised in Spain where there are larger pastures of land for the animals and where regulations ensure a more humane death. He has deliveries come in from his contact in Spain every week to his warehouse in Panzano where the meat is hung to dry for around a month and is then cut into the various pieces used in the butcher shop and in Dario's restaurants in Panzano.

This cow's leg weighs around 50 kilos! During your Butcher for a day you don't get to handle the knives, but you do get to see the dissection of the thigh and hear what all the different pieces are used for. Later lunch is served and it's really fun to know that the Panzanese steak that Dario is so famous for actually comes from the bottom (ass) fn the leg - ha ha!

Nicola explains the Bistecca alla Fiorentina as being the spine part towards the bottom (ass) that has the sirloin and fillet side to it, the Costata is the continuation of the spinal cord where there is only a Sirloin side. These 3 steaks are served after the course (and also if you go to Dario's Officina della Bistecca), together with other delicious parts.

We now leave the refreshing warehouse and make our way back up to the butcher shop where we get to participate in one of Dario's famous recipes; the Chianti Butter. Dario has a great deal of humour when he names things such as this paté that he makes from lard, as of course the cattle that we've seen don't make milk so actual butter is not really used in this region.

The lard gets cut up into pieces and then we grind it, after which rosemary, salt, pepper and other lovely aromas are added (I won't give you the exact recipe - you'll have to do the course to get the actual recipe from Dario himself!). This paté can be spread on bread or gives a great deal of flavour if used in cooking.

When you're all done with your course, you get to keep your apron as a souvenir and to remind you that you've actually witnessed the operations behind the butcher shop. Dario signs your apron and you are now his ambassador for good meat and will 1) never eat veal again 2) never buy cheap meat in the super market because you won't trust it anymore 3) if you do, you'll check where it comes from and be very skeptical and probably not enjoy it 4) be relieved if you find a local butcher to go to and you will ask questions about the animal's lives and the different cuts.

A wonderful meal is served up after the course and you actually won't be leaving until sometime in the afternoon when you've tasted the difference, the quality meat that Dario serves up and his recipes are phenomenal. So when in Chianti, don't forget to do your Butcher for a day!

If you don't have the time for it, join our Super Chianti wine tour from Florence and enjoy a unique tasting lunch in the butcher shop!