I will always remember eating my first pasta dish right here in Nairobi, at Trattoria, in the CBD. Spaghetti cooked to perfection, al dente, smothered with a punchy tomato ragu (that’s fancy speak for mince meat, by the way!) and surmounted with a generous helping of crumbed parmesan -my memory of that dish is twirling the strands of pasta on my fork and savouring the flavours which burst in my mouth like a symphony and I was sold. I don’t know if it was the dim, rather romantic lighting at the restaurant, the fact that I was eating dinner with my family which is something I totally treasure, or that I was born an Italian in another lifetime, but either way, from that moment on, Italy has been engrained in my soul. I became obsessed with getting to Tuscany and that obsession stayed with me for as long as I could remember until it became something I absolutely had to experience sooner rather than later! Grab your favourite drink and read all about my fairytale coming true, right here, on Harpreet’s Wanderlust!
After years of collecting pictures, reading endless blog posts and yearning to set footsteps in this beautiful country, it was a dream come true when M and I drove out of Florence on a sunny day in our little rented nippy Audi A1 to explore the rolling hills of Tuscany and have an adventure centred around wine exploring the Chianti Wine Route.
I literally had to pinch myself as I surveyed the vistas around me to convince myself that I was not dreaming as we hurtled down the narrow country lanes amidst the hills unfurling like a carpet of green. My dear Wanderlusters, you know by now that I have a vivid imagination and you are probably thinking that this has been spurred on by poring over beautiful photos of Tuscany BUT I swear that pictures do NOT lie. Tuscany is every bit as breath taking and gorgeous as those postcards boast, with undulating hills stretching out as far as the eye can see, studded with vines, which upon closer inspection have bunches of plump, juicy grapes bursting with goodness, ready for picking because harvest time is nigh in a couple of weeks. Groves with olive trees and orchards with apples also flank this beautiful terrain. Indeed, I have arrived in the land that I once only dreamed of visiting and I can say without conviction that Tuscany is as romantic as it gets; the panoramas make your eyes wide with wonder and the sheer romance of her stunning countryside will cast a spell over you making you fall in love with her and life without a shadow of doubt. You know that moment when you feel like everything is in divine perfection? My moment is summed up in Tuscany.
I have been a budding oenophile even before I visited Italy, and one of my favourite wines comes from Italy and is blended from the Sangiovese grape. And no, it isn’t quite that wine bottle encased in a woven basket like thing that is inevitably turned into a candle holder and affiliated with this region but exploring the Chianti Wine Route has been a Wanderlist dream for a while! I am no sommelier but rather a believer that wine is not about the fancy vocabulary but more about how it makes you feel when you drink it, other than bleeding drunk! Wine gives you a sense of place and in the moment of drinking it makes that place come alive for you. Even years afterwards, when you drink the same wine again you are transported back to where you first tasted it. This has indeed been the case for me with wine from the Chianti region, because I am transported back to my time in this ethereal place whenever I indulge in my favourite wine now.
Given that we were in wine country, there was no better way to start off our adventures on the wine route than by attending the annual Chianti Wine Festival! Our first stop in the town of Greve turned out to be a great introduction to what the next few days had to offer. This Wine Festival is an annual affair where 40 or so winemakers come together in the town square heralded by the mascot of Chianti – the Black Rooster. You buy a wine glass for 12 euro along with a ticket which then allows you to sample up to 8 types of wine from any of the stalls. Every time you try a wine, you get a stamp.
This festival is so popular that some years they are rumoured to have run out of wine glasses! Luckily though, we got some and got down to tasting. The town square is buzzing with people milling around, sniffing, swirling and sipping wines from various tents and then moving on and indulging in the ever present cheeses and cured meats that inevitably grace any Italian table. The shops around the square selling souvenirs and other goodies, butchers with legs of cured ham and other cuts of meat hanging around and large wheels of cheeses are also full to the brim. With so much to choose from and M and I none the wiser with the specific vineyards, our fail safe was choosing those tents with loads of people around and imbibing, getting incredibly happy, well I was at any rate because M was driving!
I will digress here to tell you a little bit about Chianti. This is a centuries old wine region in the heart of Tuscany and home of the red grape varietal known as Sangiovese, which is responsible for the making of many a delicious vintage of wine. The Black Rooster that I mentioned is responsible for classifying wine that has met certain standards to be affiliated with being from the Chianti region, and the Rooster can only be used for this purpose. I suppose an easier way of explaining this would be saying that only Champagne produced in the Champagne region of France can be called Champagne, and so it is with Chianti. Only those wines that meet the threshold set up can call themselves Chianti Classicos. A red ring around the rooster means that the wine is a straight up Classico and a golden ring means that it is a higher (and more expensive) grade known as a Riserva.
Now, as you will know the rain is never very far away where M and I are concerned and what was a beautiful sunny day turned grey and stormy in a matter of minutes. We took this as a sign to leave the festival and head on to Gaiole, to our beautiful hotel: Castello di Spaltenna which is a restored castle, yes a REAL castle tucked away in the Tuscan country side where time seems to have stood still. The tree lined driveway leading up to the door from the parking lot reminds me of Beauty and the Beast and the lady that checks us in has these sparkling deep blue eyes. I think I have been reading too much Twilight because she could seriously pass off for a very pretty vampire!
The buildings are beautifully restored, and set amidst acres of greenery which stretch out as far as the eyes can see. We have an olive grove right outside our room, and as I sit on the terrace and indulge in the exquisite view in front of me I am reminded that there is so much beauty in this world, so many stunning vistas to see and explore, and so many nostalgic and wistful moments had and yet to be experienced. But for now, I am content and happy to stay here a while and simply let my mind just be.
Italy. A country where food and wine is the essence of life. As I said when I started off this post, the thought of Italy evokes images of delicious home-made pastas slathered with fresh tomato sauce, scattered with aromatic basil, pizza melting with oodles of goodness, antipastos and the like washed down with glass after glass of full bodied wine. So, given that I think I may be an old soul from the heart of Italy, I was really excited that we had managed to secure a booking at Le Condrade, a little known culinary gem in the heart of Gaiole in Chianti. I honestly felt like Alice in Wonderland when I noticed the whimsical yellow sign pointing the way to the restaurant amidst a fragrant lavender bush and sunflowers, and I must admit that I half expected a little white rabbit to come dashing out of the bushes and lead me to a table with little things labelled “eat me” and “drink me”!
I can say without conviction that at this beautiful restaurant high in the hills of Tuscany, I enjoyed a meal that accentuated the finer nuances of Italian cuisine using the freshest produce cooked with the passion that Italians are so well known for and this was evident in the meal itself. You could tell that each dish was prepared with love and pride because Chef came out to talk about each course and the ingredients in what we had chosen before leaving us to tantalise our taste buds with the flavours that just melded perfectly and left our palettes begging for more! My culinary adventure started off with a creative Cappucino of Parmesan with freshly shaved black truffles which was melt in your mouth delicious, cheesy, frothy and earthy followed by a primi patti of fresh home-made pasta with a three meat sauce and a secondi of duck breast in orange sauce. My taste buds were in heaven as I savoured the food paired with a Chianti Riserva chosen by the in house sommelier to complement every dish. At the end of all this, Chef is so excited to hear that we are all the way from Kenya and he signed a menu for me to bring back home as a momento. It feels like I am living in a fairy-tale and yet this is real: an ordinary girl living an extraordinary life!
Our time in Gaiole would not have been complete without experiencing some true old fashioned home cooking. Le Condrade had set the bar quite high, and so when we stumbled upon Il Bandito, which was this unassuming rustic osteria with a lil piggy statue in its window sill giving it a cosy, homey feel, we were a little bit sceptical – especially as we were the only ones there for quite a while. We thought that it would be rude to walk out having already sat down at a table and so we chose a caprese and a penne all’arrabbiata, with the intention that we would have a bite here and then head somewhere else for something a little more substantial. Lesson here folks: do NOT judge a book by its cover! The caprese had the freshest melt in your mouth mozzarella di bufala topped off with perfectly ripened red tomatoes sprinkled with some fresh crunchy basil and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and coarse sea-salt. The penne was the perfect home-made pasta, cooked to perfection with a spicy punch and tasted just like nonna would have made it and indeed, when I peeked into the non-descript kitchen it was really nonna in the kitchen cooking up this storm!
Ah! Tuscany is so charming. As I watched the sun melt over vine studded hills I can say without conviction that this slice of heaven on earth has captured my heart as the BEST place that I have ever set footsteps in! It is everything I have dreamed of and more. I will be exploring some of the charming little towns scattered around the Tuscan countryside in my next post, so stay tuned! I hope I have managed to convince you to book that trip to this charming, magical place pronto and I will sign off here by saying thank you again dear Wanderlusters, for spending a part of your day with me! Happy Tuscan Dreaming! xoxo.