Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tales from Tuscany

I'm currently hiding out in the Tuscan town of Pomerance, visiting a sick relative of Manuel's, his great-Aunt, who is a wonderful woman.  We're about 20 minutes outside of the town of Volterra, which should be familiar to anyone who is a "Twilight" fan, and this incredibly typical Tuscan town of almost 7,000 people is also atop a hill, overlooking rolling green valleys and olive trees that dot the hillside like even little pinpricks.  Tuscan people are smart.  You build your city as high as you can, and you can see for hundreds of miles.  If your enemy is coming, they certainly have lost the element of surprise. It's a three hour drive, and Italy still amazes me that in the time I could have gotten to Boston in the United States, I'm instead sitting in Tuscany, which seems like a totally different world then Liguria.

Statistically, Pomerance is small, but more then that - it feels small.  There is less to do here then Monterosso after a flood, and much of that is due to the fact that here they have their own tourist season - of the agro-tour variety - and we are in the middle of their off season and at that awkward "post-holiday" period.  Agrotourism is huge here, and farms make up everything the eye can see.  It's evident in the food we eat.  Most everything is homemade or locally grown or hunted, which really gives insight to what "eating local" and "slow food" is in it's original form.  Like I mused in the last post, it's interesting to see a food movement and practice just simply as a normal, unquestioned way of eating.    Hearty polenta with wild boar, rustic salumi laced with big chunks of fat, crookedly hand stuffed sausages, pigeon ragu (jokes ensued about my bringing back New York pigeons and selling them here as imported American pigeon) and homemade jams.  "What do you make the jam with?", I queried Manuel's Uncle.  He laughed - "Fruit?  What else do you put in jam?".  Zio Uccio, Manuel's Uncle and one of the sweetest people in the world, used to own a bar and gelato shop in town for decades, and in his time made hundreds of flavors of gelato.  All from fresh ingredients, 16 every day, and his curious nature sometimes got the best of him.  He named potato as his strangest concoction, softly chuckling at the memory.  His retirement from the gelato business and life as a barman means that his kitchen scientist nature and native Tuscan sensibility is channeled into canning and making homemade jams, which we serve at the Cantina, the Ristorante as well as the B&B.  I don't know why we don't tell more people this or publicize it in some way.  He proudly makes hundreds of bottles at the end of the summer with the fresh fruit picked here, and I happily smear flavors like wild plum and sour cherry on everything I can get my hands on.
Crema di limoncino (again, homemade, and yes, I got the recipe mom) and vin santo poured after dinner.  Water from the nearby spring.  Wine, in unlabeled jugs from down the road - deep red and higher in alcohol then you'd think.  On our ride in, a wild pheasant scooted across the road quickly in front of the car, as Manuel's Uncle urged us to get out and catch it.  He may have only been half-kidding.

It's a hearty, happy way to eat, and it reminds me of when I spent time in Tuscany a few years ago.  Everything is filling and meals are fueling events.  Tuscan food does it's job well.  You're full of energy and calories to go work in the hills under the scorching summer sun, but in January, for an American girl who has been doing a whole lot of sitting, this isn't a way of eating I can sustain for too long.

Another interesting Pomerance fact - in the distance, the hills give off looping, etherial wisps of smoke.  The whole area is laced with geothermal, underground springs, and this steam and water provides the heat for the homes in the area.  It's not electric, and it's always incredibly warm inside with a sometimes comical smell of sulphur that wafts by.  The tap water here doesn't need to be heated, it needs to be cooled down.

It's just as "removed" as Monterosso is, but in the opposite way.  We look out at a great big sea and think how big this world is, but here, you look out at lazy, rolling hills with tops speckled with far off villages and towns, and a blue sky that stretches forever, and think the same.  Tuscany isn't the Ligurian Riviera, but beauty is beauty, even if the view is different.

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