Though I adore the pizza of Campania and the pesto of Liguria, I cant help being partial to the fare of Tuscany, a region famous for its straightforward seasonal cuisine. Some of my favorite thingscomforting soups replete with leafy greens, thick slices of grilled bread drizzled with fruity olive oil, and homey side dishes of cannellini, cremini and chardare seductively simple Tuscan dishes.
But as all cooks know, if the ingredients are good, then even the simplest dish (say, fresh figs with slivers of pecorino Toscano cheese) can be brilliant.
Maybe its my own frugal (Scottish) heritage that makes the authentic, forthright Tuscan cuisine so appealing. Or perhaps its the pride with which the Tuscans plant, harvest and prepare their grains, fruits and vegetables. Grown with care and cooked simply so that the natural.
But it wasnt until a recent trip that I realized just how much this cuisine depends on vegetables. On a stroll through the hill town of Montalcino, I noticed that every backyardno matter how smallhad a lush vegetable garden. Later,during a mountain bike excursion through the back roads and vineyards, each stone-walled farmhouse I passed had its own orto, or vegetable patch, just outside the kitchen door. Verdurithe word for vegetablesare more than just embellishments to Tuscan main courses: They often are the main course.
Inspired by those verdant gardens, this early springtime menu is based on traditional Tuscan cooking. An antipasto of crisp bruschetta with simple toppings of artichokes, white beans and roasted peppersall drizzled with heart-healthy olive oilstarts things off. For a light first course, theres an asparagus sformato, a classic Tuscan vegetable terrine. The soup is a takeoff of acquacotta, a vegetable soup, and the pasta is a primavera topped with breadcrumbs, a variation of a dish from a terrific restaurant in the area, Boccon di Vino.
For a sweet ending, a comforting almond-lemon cake with soft whipped cream and preserves is just the sort of dolci you might be served in Tuscany. Like all the dishes in this menu, its rustic, understated and simply delicious.
where to STAY
Although every corner of Tuscany has its charms, Montalcino makes a great base for exploring the region. Its a medium-sized town with good restaurants, cultural sites, lively piazzas and cafes. Montalcino is friendly and safea good choice for solo travelers. I also like the fact that its hilly: After-dinner walks burn lots of calories. (Be sure to bring cobblestone-friendly shoes.)
HOTEL DEI CAPITANI
This recently renovated three-star in town has comfortable rooms, each with a TV, phone and air-conditioning. Most rooms have terrific views.
Via Lapini, 6
011 39 0577.847.227
With its relaxing gardens, private apartments (each with its own patio and fireplace) and a pool, this agriturismoa farmhouse that offers roomsis just a 45-minute drive from Montalcino, and it makes a perfect pastoral retreat.
This newly renovated farmhouse just outside the medieval hilltop village of SantAngelo in Colle (near Montalcino) provides the traveler with a feast for the senses. Rooms with stupendous views, gardens filled with lavender and rosemary, plus a swimming pool makes this a great getaway for celebrating anniversaries, birthdays or simply life itself.
SantAngelo in Colle
011 39 0577.844.052
what to DO
This wine estate in SantAngelo Scalo (just outside Montalcino) is a terrific place to begin your immersion in Tuscan culture. Enjoy informal wine tastings, a glass museum, a winery tour, gift shop and two options for dining (see Where to Eat). Reservations are suggested for winery and museum tours. Go to the website or call for driving directions to this country estate.
800.645.6511 (in the US)
011 39 0577.840.111
Feel the need to work off some of the pasta and pizza? The big IP gas station just outside Montalcinos town walls rents mountain bikes for about 13 euros a day.
Via P Strozzi, 31
For a glimpse of gorgeous Italian countrysidewithout getting behind the wheel with a map and dictionary on your laphop aboard the Treno Natura. Most excursions (May through October) last a few hours and begin and end in Siena.
Val dOrcia Railway
011 39 740.2851
For more information:
Every July, music buffs from all over Europe flock to Montalcino to enjoy live jazz under the stars in the courtyard of the fortezza, the towns medieval fortress.
where to EAT
BOCCON DI VINO
In this home-turned-restaurant just outside the walls of Montalcino, the Fiorani family turns out delicious fare using local ingredients. Must-haves include onion soup and the ricotta Bavarian with fig sorbet. Closed Tuesdays.
Colombaio Tozzi, 201
011 39 0577.848.233
OSTERIA DI PORTA
Head to this casual little spot in Montalcino for a taste of Tuscan home cooking. That means a bowl of chickpea soup or mushroom soupplus bread and wine, of course.
Via della Liberti 9
011 39 0577.847.196
TAVERNA BANFI AND RISTORANTE CASTELLO BANFI
Before touring the winery, many visitors to Castello Banfi settle in for lunch at La Taverna. The zuppa di pane (bread soup) is chock-full of vegetables and tastes like someones grandmother made it. Closed Sundays; reservations are recommended. For a special dinner, Il Ristorante Castello Banfi is the place. Reservations are required; closed Sundays and Mondays.
Located in the countryside outside Montalcino. Go to the website for detailed driving directions.
For a quick snack and wine tasting in Montalcino, dont miss this relaxing enoteca (wine bar) with tables overlooking the Tuscan hills. Enjoy local cheeses, salads and pinzimonio (Italian-style crudités dipped in olive oil). Closed Sundays.
BRUSCHETTA WITH RED PEPPER PURÃ?Â?E
Serves 6 (makes 12 bruschetta)
30 minutes or fewer
Jarred roasted red peppers work beautifully in this recipe. You can make and chill it a day before serving. Makes about 11/2 cups purée.
12 bruschetta toasts
See recipe, below
Red Pepper Purée
1 16-oz. jar roasted, peeled, brine-packed red peppers,drained and rinsed
1 large clove garlic
3 Tbs. fresh (soft) unseasoned breadcrumbs
2 Tbs. sun-dried tomato pesto
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Blot rinsed peppers with paper towels until quite dry.
2. Put garlic down feed tube of food processor with motor running, and process about 15 seconds, until finely chopped. Add peppers, breadcrumbs, pesto and vinegar, and purée until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Spread 1 heaping Tbs. on each bruschetta toast; sprinkle with olive oil, and serve.
PER SERVING: 252 CAL; 6G PROT; 8.5G TOTAL FAT (1.5G SAT. FAT); 36G CARB; <1MG CHOL; 568MG SOD; 2G FIBER; 4G SUGARS