Saturday, February 26, 2011

Adventures in Toscana

Some of my adventures in Toscana!

Tango lessons with Dante. Kaffeina, Montalcino.

Yes, that is a beautiful French oak barrique. Yes, it is the best quality possibly made. Yes, most importantly, that is MY handwriting showing that Casa Raia Brunello di Montalcino wine is in there!

An empty glass, a lovely sunset, happiness.

The Val d'Orcia

Cypress trees at sunset

Montalcino vineyard at sunset

Cinta Sinese Pigs- Yum!

Farm fresh eggs. The yolks are so yellow they look orange. Delicious!

Sheep and lambs. Yummy pecorino cheese will come from these animals. Did you know that sheep actually say "Meeeh"? It's funny. I caught it on video. I'll try to upload one at some point. 

Pecorino cheese at Il Casale farm. From Left - Right, it is fresh (aged 4 days), very old (aged 14 months) and old (aged 4 months). Il Casale is run by a Swiss family and their 5 sons, located just outside of Pienza. 

Goats. Chevre. Yum. 

Blood Orange juice- freshly squeezed by yours truly. I used this to make the most awesome Blood Orange Poppyseed Cake. I wanted to show the contrast of how red it is. This is the typical orange juice of this region. If you order an orange juice, it will look this red!

This is the oldest oak tree in the Val d'Orcia. Beautiful. 

Haha! Love it, especially in purple. If I end up staying here, this will be my car.

Rose hips. These grow wild along the road side. You can pick them and boil them to make a tea, full of vitamin C. 

This is the my new running route. Can't beat running next to vineyards, olive groves and rolling Tuscan hills. 

Spring is on its way! Can't wait for warmer temperatures and dryer weather. 

Happy Erica!

Benvenuto Brunello 2011

Not many people know of the grandeur and elegance that is Brunello di Montalcino. Of those that understand and appreciate its special qualities, most will only have the privilege to taste a Brunello a few times in their lives.

On February 20th I had the once in a lifetime invitation to taste as many Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino wines as I could handle! It was truly a highlight of my trip.

Due to aging requirements, this year featured the release of the 2006 vintage Brunello and the 2008 vintage Rosso. The winemakers themselves were pouring their wine to share with the world for the first time <insert open mouth, jaw-dropping, intensely excited look here>. Journalists, Restaurateurs, Wine Connoisseurs, and wine makers alike were all present throughout the weekend to get the first taste of these beautiful wines.

2006 has been awarded the highest rating of 5 stars, an exceptional vintage, and you can certainly taste it in the wines. I am amazed and excited to say that I can now confidently and knowledgably describe and distinguish between the wines of Montalcino. And let me tell you, not all Brunellos are created equally … there are some that are stars and others that are not so great (never thought I would say that!). Some producers make better Rosso and others make better Brunello. After tasting these I have a very precise image of the nose, palate and feel of a good Brunello!

Things I learned about Brunello at the Benvenuto festival:
  • Organic producers are far superior in quality. You can tell the flavors are more distinct, less sulfites are used, better quality juice, etc.  When you can, go organic! And if you’re already spending for a Brunello, may as well make it the best.
  • Brunello di Montalcino smells like a cellar, cherries and earth… tastes a bit tart, structured, earthy, with cherries and some blackberries and finishes long.
  • Rosso di Montalcino can be juicier, but also has a tart quality, lighter on the tannins and less cellar-like.
  • Riservas (aged an extra year) are even more muskier, raisinated and aged but also more balanced and smooth.

      My favorite producers overall were: 
      Cupano, Sesti and Mastro Janni. 

      My other favorites were…
  •       Best Brunellos: Cupano, San Carlo, Il Paradiso, Mastro Janni
  •       Best Rossos: Sesti 2009, Baricci 2009, Cupano 2008, Le Chuise 2008
  •       Best Riservas: Castel Giocondo (Frescobaldi) 2005, Il Poggione 2005

I won’t bore you with my tasting notes but if you want to know more, email me and I will send them to you! But if you ever get a chance to taste those that are listed above, DO IT!!

And seriously, just one more shout out to Cupano- YUM!

Do you like my purple teeth here? 

Formaggio (Pecorino)

Pecorino di Pienza is the king of cheeses around Tuscany and is regarded as a very special cheese in all of Italy. I "happen" to be in the middle of Pecorino land and had the great fortune of going to a local producer yesterday.  Pecorino in Italian literally means "little sheep" and Pecora means "sheep".

Pianporcino Farm makes some of the best Pecorino di Pienza. It is run by the Bussu family- the 5 sons take care of the sheep, make the cheese and run the business. Although not certified organic, they raise the sheep and produce the cheese using only earth and animal-friendly methods and seasonal availability. 

They are located in the Val d’Orcia, which is a beautiful part of Tuscany. It is difficult to farm here due to the extreme temperatures – cold and windy in the winter and HOT in the summer (for those of you in Colorado, think Alamosa). During the agrarian reform in the 1950’s and 60’s parcels of land here were practically given away to encourage people to farm on the land. 

Many Sardinian families migrated here and brought with them their cheese making methods. Sardinians often have a “U” at the end of their names (just a fun fact).  

In the shop there were many types of Pecorino. 
This one is aged and wrapped in hay. 

These are aged and wrapped in walnut leaves

These are "just" aged. Some are sent to Emilia Romania region and cave aged.

       Pecorino aged only 3-4 months. Semi-soft.   

 Aged in left over grape skins

This particular farm has chosen to only produce cheeses that are possible as milk is available. For example, fresh ricotta (which is a sweet, light, creamy delicacy here) is only available in the spring when the mama sheep have milk. When ricotta is available year round that means the farmers give their sheep hormones to stimulate milk production.


A dream come true... for my last night at Casa Raia Kalyna asked if there was anything that I wanted to learn to make. What a thoughtful and generous offer for such a foodie as myself! I requested Carbonara as I have never actually had it but knew it had bacon so it had to be delicious. She invited a few friends over (who "happened" to be chefs!!) and together "we" made Penne a la Carbonara! It was like a private Italian cooking lesson just for me! I loved every minute of it. 

See the photos below to follow the process step by step, including some wonderful Italian secrets...


Guancharo (smoked pork cheeks) ... can also substitute bacon or pancetta
Black Pepper
White Wine
Onion, minced
Parmigiano and Pecorino, grated
Whole Eggs
Pasta (we did penne but typically you use spaghetti or linguini, etc.)

Method (see photos)

1. Gather ingredients, and get water boiling for pasta
2. Mince onion, chop pork product, grate cheese, etc.

3. In a large saute pan, heat LOTS of EVOO
4. Add pork product and garlic clove (whole). Cook until just before golden brown
5. Add white wine (approximately 1/2 C) and Black Pepper

6. In a separate bowl, crack eggs (for 10 people, we did 7 eggs)
7. Add grated pecorino cheese and whisk together

8. Once pork product is cooked, add minced onion

9. Add a few ladles of hot "pork and oil" mixture to egg mixture- stirring in gently (tempering). This gradual addition will prevent the eggs from cooking. 

10. Skim pasta water "skum" and add to egg mixture. 
**This is the secret to Italian sauces! Always skim the skum and add to sauce - it will act as a thickener of sorts!!**

11. Once cooked, drain and add pasta to pork and oil mixture and then into egg mixture and toss, toss, toss! 

12. Toss, Toss, Toss!!

13. Serve with grated Parmigiano and Black Pepper



The food has been amazing in Italia! So amazing that I have successfully gained nearly 7 pounds so far. Oops. Thought I’d include a few photos of some of the great treats I have enjoyed. Some of presentations are not the best, but that's because I forgot to take a photo until I after I had started eating... hee hee!

Marinated olives
Simple and delicious- just like everything in Italy! These are drizzled with olive oil, lemon zest, cumin and coriander seeds. You could also add oregano, rosemary, thyme or any other dried herb. Beautiful!

Gnoccetti (little gnocchi)
These were served with sauteed onion, garlic, squash and sage with grated pecorino cheese on top! The trick to well cooked fresh gnocchi is to be sure it is kept cold just until boiling, or else it will immediately become mushy. 

The fireplace at Casa Raia also serves as an indoor grill! Pull ambers to create a hot floor and place grate over them. Directly grill pork steaks, veggies, foil wrapped potatoes, anything and it is amazing!

Chickpea and Onion Soup
A true Tuscan tradition. Here we have chickpeas which were simmered with a lot of rosemary. Then add a lot of sliced onions, raddicchio, chicken broth, more rosemary, EVOO, and grate fresh parmigiano to finish. Yum!

Risotto con Tallegio
Risotto is made with Carnaroli or Arborio rice, and you must "stir stir stir" to get the starches out and thicken the dish. This risotto is made with minced onions which are sweat in butter and pancetta (Italian bacon). Then add the rice and toast. Add raddiccio and broth and finish by stirring in tallegio cheese at the end to make it extra creamy!

Tuscan Sausage and Beans
Also very common and delicious here. The sausages are quite salty though. Beans are white kidney beans in a tomato sauce. Delicious with the unsalted bread and EVOO.

Orecchiette with Greens
Steamed greens with EVOO, sauteed garlic and salt and pepper. Note the homemade sour dough bred in the background too- I made that!! Simple, fantastic.

 Mussels in a Spicy Ginger Tomato sauce with Greens and Cous Cous
This is actually an recipe so you can look it up if you want to make it too! Mussels cooked in a tomato sauce with fresh ginger, red onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar, cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, lime zest... not exactly traditional Tuscan but still wonderful!

Pork Roast Marinated in Grapes
Marinade: Sangiovese grapes, red onions, red wine vinegar, rosemary, thyme, salt & pepper, EVOO

Final cooked pork roast- it was amazing! While cooking, take the marinade and simmer. Reduce until desired thickness, strain (or leave in whole chunks) and add butter and season Serve over top of the pork. We also paired this with the Rosso di Montalcino 2008- same grapes as used in the marinade. Could you pair this any better? I think not!!

Blood Orange Poppy Seed Cake
For a non-baker, I am really proud of this cake. I made it from scratch, using freshly squeezed juice and made my own blood orange glaze too- it was moist and delicious and even better on the second day! Recipe can be found on "Individual Orange and Poppy Seed Pound Cakes" 

Nonna's Pot Roast
Pierce roast with knife 3-4 times per side and stuff garlic clove, fresh rosemary and salt into holes. Season exterior with salt & pepper. Gently brown on all sides in corn oil over low heat, covered. Slice and serve. 

Suzie's Potato & Rosemary Pizza
Exactly as is- sliced potatoes, salt, fresh rosemary on homemade pizza dough. Simply amazing!

Another great recipe (although) no photo is for Pici with Rapini

Pancetta (or bacon or speck)
Pine Nuts
Rapini (aka Brocolini or Aspiration)
Pici Pasta

1. Boil water for pasta
2. Mean while, saute lots of chopped pancetta and a 3-4 chopped anchovies
3. Add garlic (3-4 cloves) and pine nuts
4. Chop rapini 
5. Add rapini and pici pasta to salted boiling water (add at the same time)
6. Once cooked, drain and add pasta and other ingredients to a bowl and toss together with EVOO. Add a little pasta water to make it a bit saucier. 
7. Serve with grated parmigiano or pecorino