Featured Region: Tuscany
This month's featured region is Tuscany.
Tuscany, or Toscana in Italian, is the quintessential Italy for most American tourists - the hilltop walled cities, the grandeur and elegance of Florence, the umbrella pines and towering cedars lining the village lanes and drives...ah, and then there is the food and wine.
Siena - My personal favorite. Period. Siena has become a tourist's town, but still retains a character of its own. If you have the chance, go during the first week of July for the Provo (the trials) for the Palio - a horserace like no other. Get a place to stand in the "infield" on the Campo, near the first turn and you will experience the electricity of the race at its best. From Siena you can make a short drive to Radda in Chianti, to Gaiole, and other very special towns for wine, outstanding food, and great scenery.
Florence is the one city to visit in Italy other than Rome if you have limited time. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance, and the museums are not to be missed. Visit the Uffizi and the others, but get tickets because the lines can be long. If you only have time for one fast tour, spend your time in front of "Venus on the Halfshell" and the Michelangelo paintings, then head out to the snack bar on the roof terrace.
Most tourists miss the rest of Tuscany, which is really a shame. From Lucca on the western side of the region, you can do day trips to Pisa and to the mountains north of Lucca. This part of the region offers a rugged side of Tuscany where you can find the town where Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning made goo-goo eyes at one another.
Tuscany also includes the region from Grosseto south into the Maremma, a wilder section with excellent beaches and a lot of campgrounds. Tuscany is also the island of Elba, just off the coast from the Maremma by a short ferry ride.
Foods of Tuscany
We usually associate "Fiorentino" with something made with spinach, but that is not always right. One of the classic Tuscan foods is steak Fiorentino, which is a big Porterhouse cut drizzled with a classic Tuscan oil. Another beef dish is Tagliata, meaning sliced beefsteak on a bed of Aruglua, drizzled with excellent olive oil and a dash of salt. Beef from Val di Chiana is the beef of choice here.
Wines - Everybody needs to have a bottle of Chianti with the basket wrapping, but once you've done that, move on to the better wines. The wines of Montepulciano, the Chianti Classico, and on and on - much to be tested, too many to name. Try the newer Morellino di Scansano from the Maremma area as well as the classic Tuscan wines. Try the northern Tuscan blends for a change.
Meats – Aside from the excellent beef and grilled faraona, When I think of meats from Tuscany, I think of cinghiale, which is wild boar. The wild boar sausage, the wild boar bacon, and the big leg of boar with the hair still on, hanging up in the stores lining San Gimignano's main street are memorable.
Cheese – Pecorino is the cheese that I associate with Tuscany, and Pienza is the place to go for pecorino. Pecorino means "little sheep" and Pecora is the Italian word for sheep. There is aged pecorino and fresh pecorino, pecorina wrapped in laurel leaves, sage, and so on. Staggionato means aged. Also note that a lot of Pecorino Romana actually comes from Sardinia, which has more sheep than Tuscany, but in Pienza you can be sure that the pecorino is local.
Other regional favorites – Ribollito is Tuscan bread soup, but that description doesn't really do it justice. Faro is a very ancient grain that is underappreciated - try it as a substitute for regular flour. Bread - make a note: Tuscan bread doesn't have salt. Bruschetta - it's to die for. Pici is the fat pasta you will find at the local Conad grocery store in Italy but hardly ever at a store in the US.