Ever since the days of the 17th-century Grand Tour, Tuscany has been firmly on the tourist agenda. The reasons for the attraction are clear –the landscape of ridged fields and rolling hills, often topped with the walls of a medieval city or an isolated farmhouse, exert a considerable pull for many. In addition, the province’s history, its place at the heart of the Renaissance, has left a legacy of paintings and sculptures that have a powerful magnetic attraction for art lovers from around the world. But, during Toscana Slow, the region’s famed glories served only as a glorious backdrop to a four-day pageant of food and drink.
The event kicked off in the heart of Florence with a tasting of the Apostles of Tuscan Wine, a dozen of the world’s most celebrated Brunellos, Chiantis and Super-Tuscans, in the splendid setting of the Pitti Palace.
That evening, nine of the city’s best restaurants played host to chefs from each of Tuscany’s provinces. Each guest chef cooked a menu to represent the best traditions of his home region and, while I can’t vouch for the meals in any of the other restaurants, the Pistoian dinner at the Oliviera was a masterpiece of contrasts in textures and tastes, the highlight of which was a sublime, melting sausage made from calf’s head meat served on a bed of mashed chickpeas.
The next day, I moved on to Siena, where the focus was firmly on the wines of the region. A general tasting in the frescoed rooms of Santa Maria della Scala allowed visitors free access to a representative sample of some 300 or so wines, including those of well-known producers such as Biondi Santi and Fattoria dei Barbi , as well as the products of some of the less celebrated, but no less desirable wineries.
Those of us who wanted to investigate Tuscany’s winemaking in further detail had the opportunity to attend a series of tutored tastings at the Enoteca Italiana. Of the four themed explorations – Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, Single-vineyard Chiantis, New Tuscan DOCs and Vini dei Nobili – I attended the last two. While the New Tuscan DOCs tasting gave a fascinating insight into the character and styles of the wines produced in some of the province’s most forward-thinking wine-growing regions, it was the latter tasting – Vini dei Nobili: Wines for Nobles – that provided me with the most pleasure. The eight examples we tasted provided an example of why Tuscany’s aristocratic e provinces are famed for the quality of their wines: supple, concentrated and laden with fruit, each glassful proved to be a sample of liquid pleasure.
To continue the wine theme, that evening’s dinner provided participants across Italy the chance to vote for their favorite style of red asthey took part in the 24th edition of Slow Food’s twice-yearly ‘Game of Pleasure’. In restaurants right across the country, waiters poured four ‘blind’ samples of wine and diners voted according to their tastebuds. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. I ended up at a table with a group of Polish journalists and their Italian minder, and was browbeaten into reversing the order of my preferences, awarding top spot to number two instead of number four. I should have stuck to my guns, really, because in the end, once all the votes had been phoned into the Slow Food headquarters in Bra, compiled and analysed, number four, a Brunello di Montalcino, was named as Italy’s favourite wine.
The third day of the event saw my group arrive in Arezzo, where we were given the opportunity to taste the province’s celebrated olive oils. I have to admit that the concept of drinking drams of glowing green liquid first thing in the morning failed to enthuse me, but when I was given the chance to sample slicks of oil on a range of soups I understood what all the excitement was about. The piquancy and zest of the oils lifted the already delicious dishes to new heights.
My enjoyment of the day was further enhanced by the fact that I had time to visit some of the town’s most famous art works: Cimabue’s glowing Crucifix, a masterpiece of two-dimensional pathos, and Piero della Francesca’s delicately colored fresco of the Legend of the True Cross. And, somewhat serendipitously, half an hour before my group was due to leave town, a procession began to wind its way through the streets: hundreds of men and women, dressed in Renaissance costumes, accompanied by drummers, pipers and twirlers of brightly coloured flags paraded around the main piazza and up the hill towards the Basilica di San Francesco.
The market that took place in Grosseto on the final day of Toscana Slow put every street market I’ve ever wandered around to shame: there were bottles of thick, rich olive oils; plump bags of Carnaroli and Arborio rice; a stall selling Colonnata lard that proved so popular that it sold out within an hour of the market’s start; rich, spicy biscuits and fragrant dried porcini. Despite the chilly temperatures, the sun shone brightly over the city centre as I sampled my way through a selection of the products.
Everything I tasted that day could well have stood by itself as a prime example of why traditional, artisanal foods should be fostered and encouraged. That there was such a diversity on display pays ample testimony to the efforts of Slow Food.
Natasha Hughes is a London-based writer specialising in food, drink and travel. Among others, she writes for Decanter, Observer Food Monthly, Traveller and Wine Enthusiast.