A Day in the Life

By: Lauren Birmingham-Piscitelli
Town of Montepulciano

MONTEPULCIANO, ITALY

The drive curves along a narrow road lined with cypress trees that stand tall. Inside the walls of Mon- Montepulciano is a poetic town lined with worn-out cobblestones, hidden courtyards, the smell of salty pecorino and the earthy scent of wine barrels. From my room at the villa, I can see the ancient village below, a UNECO World Heritage site, as butter yellow sunflowers, their faces turned to the sun, sway in the breeze.

This is Montepulciano land of pici ingredients in my kitchen. I have my trusted Tuscan butcher, vegetable and fruit pasta, Brunello and the Etruscans (a civilization who built and ruled the greater part of Tuscany starting in the 4th century BC with the Roman–Etruscan Wars). This Tuscan town is perched on a ridge 1,800 feet above sea level and overlooks the Val di Chiana to one side and beautiful Lago di Trasimeno to the other.

Dotted with palazzos unfolding like an Italian accordion, Montepulciano is forever beautiful. Enotece, trattorie and cantine spill throughout its narrow and winding streets, where no cars are allowed, while the church bells of San Biago ring in the distance.

Located just a little more than an hour-drive south of Florence and a two-hour drive north of Rome, Montepulciano is the perfect stop on every traveler’s journey. The town is often called the Florence of the south thanks to its classical Renaissance architecture including arched and triangular molding appearing over doors and windows. When you meander along its quaint stone footpaths, you too will fall in love.

Photo right-Chef Massimo Bottura

Say the word Montepulciano and visions of pici all’aglione – thick spaghetti-like pasta in a spicy garlic tomato sauce, ribollita – a slow-cooked hearty vegetable soup, and grilled bistec- ca alla Fiorentina from the Chianina cow, come to mind. Precious wines including Brunello and Nobile will have you sipping and swirling in any one of its famous cantinas. The only way to experience a region and learn about its food and wine is to befriend a local. My friend in Montepulciano is Chef Massimo Bottura, who I call my “buongustai”, which means a person who loves to eat and knows everything there is to know about food and wine. I am on my way to meet him at the Piazza Grande and I invite you to come along. He’s a native chef who has been churning out delicious everything for more than 20 years. Passionate and in-the- know, his preparation is traditional with a touch of modern elegance. He’s also been leading my cooking classes and wine tastings almost as long as he’s been cooking. “Buongiorno,” he replies.
Nature is splendid at the change of seasons; there’s the ‘vendemmia,’ wine harvest, and the changing colors of the countryside. In fact, every season has its beauty. Chef Massimo Bottura

“HOW DOES A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A CHEF BEGIN?” I ASK

“My day during this season begins like any other day – searching for excellent produce from trusted local purveyors, and then using these farmers and fish monger-where even in Tuscany we have fresh fish almost every day. Our season starts at Easter time and continues through to November – this is our high season. Then during the winter, the town becomes quieter and there are less activities, but Montepulciano remains a beautiful place to visit. Nature is splendid at the change of seasons; there’s the ‘vendemmia,’ wine harvest, and the changing colors of the countryside. In fact, every season has its beauty.” He explains that “Every season also has its harvest. Springtime gardens bring us beautiful asparagus and artichokes right through June. Fava beans and peas are plentiful as well. As it warms up and we head into summer, many tomato varieties will soon be available – yellow, red and cherry ones too – along with eggplant, zucchini and pumpkin. Seasonally speaking, Tuscan meats do not change, but the recipes we use them in do. Cinghiale, wild boar, is my suggestion for a great winter meal because it contains more calories and brings warmth on colder days.

In summer, we use vegetables in antipasto, with gnocchi and ravioli, and along- side the famous grilled bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Without a doubt, we use a variety of Tuscan beans such as: cannellini, chickpeas, fagioli nero, black beans, and fagiolina del Trasimeno, the white noble bean from Umbria. Tuscan soups, such as ribollita, (re-boiled) is a thick and hearty winter soup whose main ingredient is black cabbage. Traditionally this soup is left to cook in the chimney while carrots, onions and celery are added.”

WHEN I ASK CHEF MASSIMO FOR HIS FAVORITE RECIPE HE REPLIES

“Una piatto che manca mai (a recipe that’s never absent from my kitchen) is pici Toscana.”

Photo credit  by Mirjona Lleshaj

PICI TOSCANA is a pasta made with flour and water by hand and served in a garlic tomato sauce. Sauces change depending on the season. In June, pici ll’aglione, aglione, meaning garlic from Valdichiana, is the protagonist. This garlic is even registered as a PAT, a Traditional Agricultural Product.

Pici is also served in bianca, meaning white, consisting of garlic, chili pepper and extra virgin olive oil or with wild boar or duck. My kitchen is never without piccione, pigeon. Properly raised clean pigeon is served in a salsa di vin Santo e coco, which means sweet wine and chocolate powder sauce. He calls it, “A very particular recipe.”

He explains, “Vin santo, translates to blessed wine, because it was traditionally served at baptisms, weddings and special occasions. It’s a sweet wine that’s served with cantucci, dry Tus- can biscotti. The cantucci are dipped into the liqueur and enjoyed at the end of every meal.”

I learn about Tuscan wines as Chef Massimo moves from espresso to aperitivo, a little midday drink. “Montepulciano is one of the most important wine regions of Italy. We are known for our reds with the sangiovese grape being the most prominent. I built my own cantina by hand and it stocks four hundred bottles.

I’ve selected diverse winemakers so there is a good variety. I continue to research and add to it, including both the most important to the smaller wine makers, so guests can taste excellent local wine from Montepulciano.” In this part of Tuscany, there are two towns: Montal- cino and Montepulciano, and they both have the same sangiovese rosso grape.

In Montalcino, they make Brunello, and in Montepulciano, they make the Nobile. The Nobile is the gentler and more feminine version of a Brunello.

It’s softer on the palate and doesn’t require five or so years of aging. The wine appellation of Montepulciano includes the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG with grape varieties: 85 percent prugnolo gentile and 15 percent mammolo (both clones of sangiovese grape). There are also Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva DOCG and and Rosso Toscana IGT Tignolo.

A tall Tuscan waiter carries a platter of salumi and Pecorino, while the bottle of il Ciliegiolo, Val delle Rosse breaths until ready. The scent of wine is in the air. Ever since I met chef Massimo he’s been welcoming to me, alla Toscana, in great Tuscan style. That’s why I call him my “buongustai”, which mean gourmet.

Photos by Lauren Birmingham-Piscitelli

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