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Under the Tuscan sun…

I have a persisting dream of visiting the rolling hills of Italy with its fields of giant yellow sunflowers…experiencing the local cuisine and savouring the elegant wines whilst indulging in the sincerity and warmth of the Italian people. Well, my dream finally came true in our recent visit to Tuscany…and in no less than a sleek and streamlined cabriolet with me doing my utmost to give Grace Kelly a run for her money, complete with the wind through my hair, though perhaps ever so slightly less elegant!

The Italian lifestyle is one I am unquestionably most envious of - Italians are sincere, welcoming people who love to relax and spend time with family and friends. They certainly don’t need any excuse to celebrate, and they do this best! Celebration and relaxation is commonly found around a table relishing the traditions of pure “Mama Italiano’s” cooking, a passion in itself. Their most fascinating characteristic trade is their LOVE of talking (passionately, with their whole body it seems)…which by the way, is an art form in itself!

Most travellers to Tuscany don’t venture away from the main landmarks. This region though has so much to offer beyond the popular tourist attractions. If you are prepared to venture off the beaten track to see more than what you would find in the guidebooks, you will go home with a completely different view of this remarkable region. Therefore, our road-trip through the countryside wasn’t planned; we just followed our senses…with a little help from a GPS! Getting lost was such a huge part of our journey and made for wonderful tales to tell upon our return home.

We opted to stay all over the place, a mismatch of hotels and farm houses, starting off with the glitzy Hotel Stendhal in Parma, famous for its prosciutto, cheese, architecture and surrounding countryside. In peak traffic, we found this beauty at the end of the day by pure accident as it is right in the centre of the old historical town. The history of this hotel is evident in the red walls, the bureau in bois de rose (some call this the most beautiful of all exotic woods) with the hotel oval coat of arms reminds one of ancient splendour and wealth. We immediately unpacked and enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Attems Pinot Grigio 2010, Venezia Giulia IGT, Italia overlooking the green lawns of the new Piazzale della Pace. This wine is full bodied and has an expressive terroir with some fruit and tang on the nose, and unusually a savoury, almost nutty quality on the palette. In Italy, 2010 was considered a “white wine year” and I now know why…

image84Our Parma dining experience was at the traditional Trattoria Sorelle Picchi, a restaurant off the street (on the pavement), which at first glance seemed to be a shop selling the famous Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese hanging tantalisingly in the window - but to our surprise, was rather a delightful eatery. The cured meats were truly unadulterated smoked pleasure and of the best we have ever tasted anywhere in the world. This diminutive street eatery is a must-visit for amazing local ambiance, delicious food, exceptional service and exquisite wines – a good start to our journey…

From Parma our journey took us along the coast to the medieval village of Portovenere, dating back to early Roman times. It is an old-fashioned fishing village with picturesque pastel houses, boats bobbing in the harbour and a web of meandering walking paths. We stayed at the sea front Royal Sporting Hotel perched quaintly overlooking the stunning scenery of the Poets’ Gulf…unforgettable in every sense. The hotel had a swimming pool which was a blessing under the Tuscan sun!

It was here, in Portovenere, where we had our most fascinating dining experience at the famous Ristorante Le Bocche…”where the pleasures of fine dining blend with the colours of the sea…”. The restaurant is situated in front of the sea in a private spot on the cliff of St. Peter’s Church, built in the 6th century and rebuilt in 1277 in its present gothic style. At this popular restaurant one can enjoy any of the delicacies of the sea complimented by a wine list containing an infinite range of fine wines to satisfy the tastes of both daring as well as sophisticated wine enthusiasts.

image85Here, one can sample the delicacies of the sea in pure form, RAW. Please don’t get me wrong, I am a sushi fanatic, but raw shellfish is an acquired taste that I am not sure needs to have a standing in the culinary world – but we gave it a try and yes, I stand by my word. Apart from the ‘acquired’ tasting experience, the quiet sounds of the sea and the soft breath of the ocean breeze across the cliffs have lived here side-by-side for centuries in unspoiled harmony.

San Gimignano, a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena was next on the list of essential places to visit. An absolute must if you ever travel to Tuscany - known as the Town of Fine Towers; it is famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the conservation of about a dozen of its tower houses, which, with its hilltop setting and encircling walls create "an unforgettable horizon".

We instantly fell in love with the farm cottages on Torre Prima, perched on top of a hill ensuring the delight of the breath-taking panorama of the surrounding valleys image86of olive groves and vineyards. Our hosts, Giusi, Maurizio and little Sofia were testament to Italian generosity. Whilst we sipped on a glass of their delightful.

 Vernaccia wine (a 2010 white) we discovered the meaning of the phrase “slow passage of time”.

Next stop, Relais Santa Chiara Hotel, a delightfully elegant hotel, situated on a hill in the heart of the rolling hills of Tuscany overlooking the impressive, tranquil Tuscan countryside - one of a kind!

We opted for dinner on a farm, the Tratorria Borgo di Racciano, on the summit of a hill boasting the spectacular view of the town of San Gimignano. This restaurant is inspired and based on the values of typical Tuscan “homemade” dishes, and whether you want an informal romantic meal for two or a night with many friends, this restaurant is no fuss, just great, simple Italian cooking at its best. It is here where we enjoyed an exceptional wine from the Tuscan estate Le Rote, a charismatic Chianti Colli Senesi with rich, chewy dark fruit, ripe tannins, yet a dry and clean finish. Remarkably, this wine was aged a full 1.5 years before release, a very rare and determined decision for a non-riserva Chianti - and the results show in the bottle. Smooth, black-cherry and sweet tobacco-linger on a faint, pleasant finish that is touched with just the right hint of oak. Lovely!

The absolute highlight of our trip came from the heart of Tuscany in the medieval town of Colle di Val d’Elsa. Here you will find, Arnolfo, a two Michelin star restaurant run and owned by brothers - Chef Geatano Trovato and maître, head sommelier Giovanni Trovato. Grand chef Geatano trained with the best chefs in Europe and returned to his native town to prepare cuisine using only organic produce, imbuing the pure and authentic flavours of Tuscany.

We were seated in a room full of striking yet comfortable chairs upholstered in white leather, set around a large round table reserved for just the two of us. The ambiance was created in all of the detail surrounding us…including the refined tablecloths and elegant crystal glasses - as if to emphasise that nothing is left to chance or improvisation.

One can order a la carte or choose to have any of the two tasting/ seasonal menu’s “Discovery Tradition” and “Contemporary Moments” featuring fresh pasta of the day, milk-fed veal and other products from animals raised in the hills of Siena, as well as seafood from the Tyrrhenian coast. The “Grande Dessert” is the finale, a selection of their delicacies in small portions. This is both a feast for the eyes and the palate! Geatano sets high standards for creativity and his dishes daringly ride the line between innovation and tradition, almost always with spectacular results.

Brother Giovanni is an expert sommelier and guide’s you through a wine list featuring six hundred vintages from Tuscany and further afield. He is also one of the best in the hospitality business when it comes to service and ensuring his guests genuinely feel like they are part of the Trovato family. Much to our delight, he even spoke a little Afrikaans!

To start the evening we opted for a bottle of Ca’del Franciacorta Satén 2006, a divine white sparkling made by the exclusive Ca’del Bosco winery whose single principle is the quest for excellence.

We opted for the “Discovery Tradition” sample menu consisting of traditional Italian cuisine, great value relative to a la carte and also a clever way to sample more of the food on the menu. All that comes to mind to say is that this chef is an artist, his creations are superb and style very clearly inspired by the finest quality produce.

Our second wine of the evening was a Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oror Chianti Classico Riserva 2001, most famous for the gold-label and first produced in 1947. It is a beauty with dark, ripe flavours and lots of depth made with 85% of the famous Sangiovese grapes and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Colorino. This wine maintains the tradition, combining coffee, prune and tobacco scents with flavours of ripe plums and dark earth. So exquisite that we had two bottles! Why do I appreciate wine…well, it’s the art of wine, a masterpiece created by the talent that few possess, in which dedication and ability blend in a magical, mystical marriage with nature.

One of my favourite quotes from Nicholas Oakes, wine-searcher.com “I had a fling with beer, a passionate affair with Cognac, but the love of my glass is wine”

Arnolfo Ristorante and its Geatano and Giovanni Trovato are the epitome of the romance of Italy and they will welcome you as if you have arrived home and into the arms of a genuine Italian famiglia. What a fantastic place…a meal that will be challenging to beat…I will continue to search…

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One of our favourite lunchtime hangouts was definitely the Bar Le Torri, a gem of a bistro in the magical San Gimignano, opposite the famous church. They offer great wines and exquisite food prepared daily and served with the smiles and friendliness that one comes to love from this great community. Owners, sisters Patricia and Carla, are charming ladies, always full of smiles and well worth a visit for the best Insalata Caprese…a simple salad made from sliced fresh buffalo mozzarella, locally vine-ripened tomatoes that are red, juicy and flavourful, basil, and olive oil. It is one of the simplest and most delicious of salads enjoyed with good quality Italian bread and a glass of slightly chilled white wine…heaven…A recipe I brought home with me and still enjoy regularly!

Approaching the end of a splendid journey we spend our final nights at the lavish Relais San Pietro in Polvano, a small family-owned hotel and restaurant in an old, yet lovingly restored farmhouse. Surrounded by green woods and olive trees in a quiet setting, this hotel is located in a little hilly village, between Arezzo and Cortona. It has a beautiful panoramic terrace and a charming private swimming pool overlooking the valley and surrounded olive groves. The only sound noticeable is the hooting of a car or two coming up the winding, one-way hilltop road – although not so charming at six in the morning!

Our hosts, owner Luigi Protti, and his wife “Mama” Luigi, the chef, are thoroughbred Italians –sincere and welcoming. It is here where I fell in love with risotto - I had the best Risotto Solare allo “Zafferano di Navelli” imaginable, which is a timeless, saffron infused dish – absolutely exceptional! Mama Luigi’s passion for food is evident in each and every one of her dishes and the passion and love for people comes so naturally to Luigi that one becomes instant family. This hotel is a gem – I will undeniably recommend it to anyone just wanting to unwind, relish in breath-taking scenery, eat exceptional pure home-made Italian cuisine and delight in the endless warmth of the Italian people and the simple enjoyment of a glass of exceptional Italian wine.

Our journey was created by remarkable memories of unforgettable places, extraordinary food, delightful wines and life-long friends made. In Michelangelo’s words “I am still learning”…

My heart yearns for the rolling hills of Tuscany – it was THAT and so much MORE… “all around you the enhancement of history, literature and poetry…of people who still speak with the cadences of Dante.” Arnolfo