The morning fog that hovered over the valley below San Gimignano began evaporating as we drove into Sovestro in Poggio, the vineyard on the grounds of Agriturismo Guardastelle. We arrived at the vineyard mid-morning for a tour and lunch at the main house before continuing on to Monteriggioni and Siena, and given the uncertain sky I reached behind my seat for my trench coat, just in case. But as I did, the gray blanket of mist broke up, and occasional rays of sun peeked through clouds to reflect off dewy grapevines and the silver undersides of olive leaves before going into hiding again. Not perfect but promising: the day wasn’t exactly clear yet, but it would be.
This particular vineyard resting in the shadow of San Gimignano’s towers is one small part of the broader Chianti wine region, home to Tuscany’s exalted Sangiovese grape and several of Italy’s best known red wines. For Fausto Messeri and his wife Susanna, though, Guardastelle is more than simply a stop along Tuscany’s vineyard loop. It is also their family home, their livelihood, and the force behind their growing agriturismo, Italy’s novel style of farm vacation, one of the country’s most interesting and intimate tourism experiences. Agriturismo is not a working holiday – trust me, you won’t be enlisted to harvest crops or milk any livestock. Rather, this type of extended stay gives travelers an opportunity to rent a room or cottage on farmhouse lands and experience the day-to-day working life of an Italian farm family. Travelers on this kind of holiday often use the farmhouse as a home base for exploring the countryside outside of Italy’s major cities. They eat at least one meal a day that has been cooked from the family kitchen, often simple, unfussy, but truly local or regional fare. They wander the grounds or rest in the shade of an olive grove. If an agriturismo grows food or raises animals, guests may be able to participate in cooking lessons given in the home kitchen. In the case of Guardastelle, because the couple grows grapes, guests are invited to tour the vineyard and sample the wines produced there. In return, the farm owners receive some tax benefits and may put their hostelry earnings back into the land they work.
I was only scheduled to be at Guardastelle for a couple of hours, a brief tour stop and not several lazy, pastoral days. But still, there was the promised tour, and lunch. Oh, and some good Tuscan wine. Those things would have to be enough this time around.
Fausto, owner and property caretaker, met our car as we pulled into the gravel lot at the top of the long, cypress-lined driveway, and led us right away to rows and rows of vines. The vineyard grows the prized Sangiovese grapes and also a lesser known but equally important white variety, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and it was the white wine made fro these grapes that we had come to taste. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the only white Chianti wine that has been given D.O.C.G. status. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is a classification awarded to certain wines that meet the strict growth and production guidelines established by the Italian government: Grapes must be grown and harvested by hand with no modern mechanized intervention; following the harvest, they are then pressed in ancient wooden presses; a D.O.C.G. eligible wine will contain at least 90% of the wine’s name grape, and only up to 10% of other allowed regional grapes; all riserva wines made according to D.O.C.G. principles will contain only the best grapes of the harvest, and must age at least one full year in the barrel and then longer in the bottle before being ready to sell and consume. The classification process is rigorous, the work it creates, arduous. And yet, farmers like Fausto and Susanna, co-owner and principal winemaker, comply. As a result they earn the rare and highly prized paper label found on the neck of a D.O.C.G. bottle to guarantee quality.
After walking by the growing area, through the family’s equally extensive olive grove, and across the property to the building holding the vats of wine in various stages of aging, it was time for lunch and samples of wine. For our meal, we ate the Tuscan specialty ribollita followed by a plate of local cured meats with two types of local pecorino cheese. Fresh, salt-free Tuscan bread was toasted and topped with either Guardastelle olive oil and salt or a traditional Tuscan chicken liver spread. Susanna’s mother cooked the delicious lunch,and as a complement to the food, there was Susanna’s wonderful wine. Throughout the meal the wine flowed, both a young Vernaccia and a more complex riserva. The older wine had a lasting finish that the younger one lacked, but both shared flavors of pear, green apple, and hints of grapefruit. The crisp fruit notes made a nice ending to the rich meal.
Shortly after, with full bellies and light heads, we said our goodbyes to Guardastelle and returned to the road, on to the next town. The sun had come out in full force while we were inside, and we drove away to Monteriggioni under blue sky.
Check out the photos and recipe below.
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I have noted this a few times now: Tuscan bread is made without salt. As one of my fellow diners noted at lunch, the bread on its own is pretty forgettable.
She was right. As you might imagine, salt works with yeast in bread to enhance the flavor. Salt also slows the pace of yeast fermentation, so bread made with salt will have a better, slower rise, resulting in a stronger gluten structure than bread made without. Salted bread will be nice and chewy bread rather than dense and crumbly bread. That same salt-induce slower rise will give a loaf’s crust that deeper brown color too. Given all that, why would Tuscan bakers choose to bake bread without salt?
One word: Pisa.
Many years ago, when coastal lying Pisa ruled the region, the leaders had the local salt harvested from the sea and then imposed a tax on it. The dwellers in the central part of Tuscany, namely the Florentines, refused to pay and, in a thumb in the eye, stopped using salt altogether, both in their bread and in the curing process as well. A proud people, the saltless custom stuck forever after.
As my lunch neighbor noted, the bread is pretty bland. That is, until you warm it or toast it and put something on it. Once you do that, the bread is delicious, the perfect vehicle for delivering something deeply savory into your mouth. Hence the rich chicken liver spread (a recipe here if you’d like to try it at home; often the spread will have a splash of vin santo added instead of cognac along with the capers and anchovies, a little sweet to balance the sharp saltiness), or a simpler fruity olive oil and a sprinkling of truffle salt.
Tuscans also use the saltless bread in many of their classic dishes: pappa al pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), panzanella (bread salad), even the ribollita we had for lunch at Guardastelle. In all these preparations, the bread soaks up broths or juices and breaks down to lend structure and texture to the finished dish.
Ribollita is the Italian word for re-boiled, and as the name indicates, this is a soup that is best made one day and re-heated to be eaten the next day. The flavors develop as the soup stands in the fridge. I say soup, but this is really more of a porridge, something thick and ribsticking. Ribollita won’t win prizes for looks but it is so delicious. A vegetable mixture braised in broth and enhanced with white beans and day-old bread cubes, the concoction is economical, healthy, hearty, and layered with flavor. I loved Guardastelle’s so much that I made a pot of my own once I returned home, and here is my recipe. You may cook your own dried beans or use canned. If you use canned, as I did, I recommend simmering them for a bit with some fresh sage leaves in some of the vegetable stock you will also use in the rest of the recipe. Then, the simmering liquid can get thrown, along with the beans, into the ribollita pot. Serve it up in bowls finished with a drizzle of good cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, and a shaving or two of aged pecorino or parmesan.
- 3-4 cups good vegetable stock
- 3 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed, or about 4 cups cooked beans
- 5 sage leaves
- 3 garlic cloves
- 4 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
- 3 small carrots, peeled and chopped into a dice
- 3 celery ribs, chopped into a dice
- 1 small fennel bulb, bottom trimmed, diced
- 1 bunch kale, chopped into ribbons, preferably black kale, but variety is fine
- 5 or 6 whole peeled San Marzano plum tomatoes from a can
- 6 slices crusty bread, torn into small pieces
- salt and pepper to taste
- Pecorino or Parmesan for shaving
- additional olive oil for drizzling
If using canned beans: add to a medium saucepan 1 cup of the vegetable broth, the rinsed and drained cannellini beans, the sage leaves and 1 clove of garlic left whole or slightly bruised. Bring the liquid up to a gentle boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover the pot and let simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the beans steep for about 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the sage leaves and garlic clove and discard. Retain the beans in the broth.
If using dried beans, cook them according to your preferred method. Drain and set aside.
Finely mince the remaining 2 cloves of garlic. In a large pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil and add the chopped onion, garlic, carrots, celery, and fennel. Sauté these until they begin to soften, stirring often, about 5 minutes.
Add to the vegetables in the pot the kale, the tomatoes and their juices, the beans, and 2 cups of the broth. Bring to a gentle boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Simmer, covered, until the beans begin to break down, about an hour.
After an hour, stir in the torn bread and stir to incorporate. Taste for seasoning and add a little salt and pepper to taste. Simmer another few minutes to let the bread break down. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the soup to cool before placing in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate the soup overnight.
The next night, reheat the ribollita, using as much of the last cup of stock as necessary to thin the soup to a porridge consistency. Serve the ribollita in bowls, drizzled with the remaining olive oil and sprinkled with shavings of cheese.
©2013 Jane A. Ward