Wednesday, October 27, 2010

September 11th...Cretaiole...Lots to do today ...

We plan to have lunch in Montalcino at Trattoria l'Angelo (Have to compare Montalcino pici with last nights dinner). Ahhh...last nights dinner...

Our hostess at Cretaiole, Isabella, has planned a lesson in making pici (pasta) which will become our dinner. I did not take an official count, but I estimate Cretaiole had about fifteen guests for the pici lesson and dinner. We all gathered early in the evening on Wednesday and the lesson began. Isabella used about 4 to 5 kilos of flour ( 9 to 11 pounds) with which she made a dam into which she broke about two dozen eggs. I know that olive oil was involved and certainly water, but I don't have her recipe so I won't even try to recite the process from memory and my illegible notes. (There was also an olive oil tasting that lasted for two to three hours the next day).

After mixing the ingredients, the dough was divided into a number of pizza dough sized rounds and the class took over the kneading. Our hostess carefully demonstrated the kneading process and over saw our progress. I have a few short videos and will attempt to post two or three of the most representative. Suffice it to say that the demonstration by Isabella was much more successful than our attempts to duplicate the process.

Rolling out the pici by hand is surely an art! Isabella created pici six to eight feet long and with the diameter of a pencil as effortlessly as was our applause in response to her skills. The class did quite well and soon there was a "ton" of pici ready to serve with the Ragu that had been cooking in the kitchen since the evening before. Now we might think that cooking a Ragu for perhaps 24 hours is overkill, but however long it was actually cooked was the right amount of time because the Ragu was delicious! Isabella's husband, Carlo, had made a wood fire in a outdoor grille (we might compare it to a barbecue grille) and reduced the fire to red hot coals over which he grilled sausages and some sort of chops. The pici ragu and the chops and sausages were the hearty dinner we all wanted and with a salad, as much bread and wine as we could reasonably consume, dinner was brilliant, to say the least. The simple foods we have enjoyed in Italy are the best. In fact, I cannot recall a fancy dinner that was as good as the pici ragu dinner at Cretaiole!

Back to Thursday morning...We headed out early to visit Santa Anna in Camprena, a Benedictine monastery dating from the fifteenth century.
(an aerial view of Santa Anna in Camprena)

(Scenes from the movie "The English Patient" were filmed here). The drive to the monastery, like every rural drive in Tuscany and much of Italy, was almost as good as the monastery itself! More vineyards and olive groves. The edges of the vineyards of largely Sangiovese grape are planted with rose roses...for miles...

The roads wind through hills and valleys, some recently tilled and others growing the grapes and olives that will be harvested in September and October. We pass through a few small towns and villages and and by fields of wilting sunflowers. It seems the drive is over before we have seen enough of this beautiful area (Val d'Orcia) of Tuscany.

We drove for at least 45 minutes and finally found the monastery. Actually, if we had not taken a somewhat (unplanned) circuitous route we would have arrived in 15 or 20 minutes...Santa Anna in Camprena is only about 6 or 7 km from Cretaiole. I goofed off with the picture taking and somewhat intentinally because the guests at the monastery were painting in the courtyard

(the courtyard on the top and the refectory on the bottom)

We wandered around the grounds and throughor a half hour and headed out to Montalcino...and lunch...

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cretaiole, Val d' Orcia, Tuscany

We left Lucca at about noon September 10th. The drive from Lucca to Pienza is an adventure in itself! We leave the freeway, as previously mentioned, and travel the final 60 miles (97 Km) on SR2 which winds through the beautiful Tuscan hills and valleys, past vineyards and olive groves with geraniums and roses planted in carefully aligned rows adjacent to the highway. Our 2 hour leisurely drive twists and turns (often abrubtly) into small towns (citta) and villages (villaggio).

Often the highway narrows to a very tight two lanes passing through a village where the homes and shops are separated from the roadway by only a three foot wide sidewalk, and occassionally, no sidewalk at all. At nearly every significant intersection of this highway with other roads, we encounter the well designed traffic circle. The circle may intersect as many as five or six roads with multiple signage pointing the way to major (and minor) towns. A word of advice...if you decide to travel by car in Italy, pay careful attention to the signs, especially if you are unfamiliar with the locales where you travel. Know, however, even if you do get lost, that in itself, can be a very pleasant adventure. In 2006, we left the paved highway (relying on a GPS) and traveled, nearly in circles, for an hour or so, through some pretty, and some very wild, countryside, on a dirt road, before we stopped and asked directions of a non english speaking gent in a brushy wooded area where hunters were about chasing wild boar.

A few of the citta and villaggio we passed through were Bellevista, Staggia, Castellina Scalo, San Martino, Siena, Isola d' Arbia, Monteroni d' Arbia, Buonconvento, Torrenieri, San Quirico d' Orcia and finally arriving at Cretaiole about 2PM. Cretaiole sits on a high ridge just a few minutes (by car) west of Pienza and the intrepid walker could walk into Pienza in less than an hour. I say "intrepid" because the walk either involves travel along the highway (limited shoulders) or cross country through the farm fields on dirt roads with views of Pienza obscured by the topography. As an aside...we saw quite a few cyclers on the road, apparently traveling through Italy by bicycle! Courageous and demanding physically.

Again, I digress.

The drive was great but could have been much better if we had planned it so we could have stopped at a few of these small villaggio if only to stretch our legs. Well, leaving that for another trip (which is certain to occur soon)...

Tonight, in/at Cretiaole, a dinner prepared by our host and hostess...pici ragu (bolognaise), wood grilled/roasted meats and sausages, local (jug) wine, grappa and lots of bread. Pici is a thick, hand rolled pasta (fat spagetti) which origine is claimed by this area (Province of Siena) of Tuscany.