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Beyond the shadow of The Leaning Tower,
A cornucopia of wines and artisan foods
A gorgeous landscape of plains and rolling hills dotted with small towns and medieval villages, rich with vineyards and farms producing high quality wines and handcrafted products. And when the sky is blue against white billowing clouds you feel you’re traveling through a Renaissance painting.
So, on a Trade Mission trip to Pisa organized by the Pisa Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce for a group of serious food buyers from the US – Costco, Seahawk North America and Norwegian Cruise Lines among others – I was happy to pay 16 Euros to climb the 296 or 294 steps - the seventh floor has two fewer steps on the north-facing staircase - and discover a magical landscape: the shimmering Tyrrhenian coast, the verdant plains, the rolling Pisan Hills; a Tuscan country side rich in history, culture food and wine.
The Province of Pisa - 945 sq. miles, 39 communes and a population of 400,000 – at the confluence of the Arno and the Serchio rivers, still bears the footprints of Etruscans, Romans, Saracens, crusaders and modern time tradesmen. Traditionally an important port and a cross road for trade, navy and army, the Republic of Pisa – home of Galileo Galilei - had achieved commercial and political greatness before Florence resorted to walls and monopolized power and art.
On our first day in Pisa, over twenty merchants had gathered in the gallery of a cloister off the Piazza with The Tower as a background to showcase the products of Pisa. There was a cornucopia of DOCG, DOC and GIT wines, truffles, prosciutto, cheeses, pastas, spirits, saffron, olive oil and more produced by family-run workshops some of which have grown with time, enough to compete on the international markets.
On day two, packed into a bus which took us to the vicinity of Volterra – yes, the town where Twilight, the Volturi vampire movie was filmed - we had a chance to see for ourselves the places where these products came from and were manufactured.
Wine has literally been a part of the Tuscan civilization for over 3,000 years. From the time the ancient Etruscans settled in the hills of Tuscany the vine and the olive tree were not only fundamental to their diet, but were also considered to be sacred plants with lifesaving properties.
Right outside of Pisa, dotted with small towns, vineyards and ancient villages, the Wine Route of the Pisan Hills (Strada del Vino delle Colline Pisane www.stradadelvinocollinepisane.it ) is easily accessible.
When the sky is blue against white billowing clouds you feel like you’re traveling through a Renaissance painting while drinking a variety of wines from the Pisan Hills, San Torpè and Montescudaio, among others.
Montescudaio, the southernmost point of the Province of Pisa, is about 10 kms north of Bolgheri, home of the Super Tuscans - cult wines like Ornellaia and Sassicaia, a pre-Alpine terroir rich in fossils and minerals where the co-op Società Agricola Fontermorsi produces an array of dry and aromatic white wines with great minerality, superb blends of reds and Volterrana, a well-balanced, fruity Sangiovese varietal with soft tannins. “It is only in the last 20 or 15 years that we’ve started bottling fine wines in this region,” said winemaker Roberto Ligasacchi. “Before that, we sold it in bulk.”
So did Laura Leone’s family at their six hectares estate Castelvecchio in Terriciola, midway between Pisa and Siena, who only recently started producing and bottling their own label of white wines with Trebbiano, Malvasia and Colombana (or bacca Bianca) and rosé with 100% Sangiovese.
The hills and the small village Terricciola are a romantic backdrop for Badia di Morrona, the XII century Abbey turned into a winery with a facility for weddings, conferences, hunting parties and an agritourism lodge. It is one of the oldest and largest wineries in the Province of Pisa with over 80 hectares which produce prime wines, Vin Santo and extra virgin olive oil. Visits include the monastery with its church, the Badia, the ancient barrique store rooms and wine tastings at the modern state-of-the-art cellar and tasting room. (Badia di Morrona, Via di Badia, 8 - Morrona 56030 Terricciola - Pisa and Via del Chianti 6; 56030 Terriciola. Tel: 0587 656013, www.badiadimorrona.it ).
No wonder the region has attracted foreign investments.
At Villa Saletta, British farm manager and winemaker Jonathan Rodwell, formerly a winemaker at Kendall Jackson, makes magnificent blends of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Cab Franc; and Chiave, an IGT 2006 blend of Cab and Merlot.
Eric Albada Jelgersma, owner of Château Giscours and Château du Tertre - two Grand Crus classés in Margaux, Bordeaux, bought Caiarossa in the heart of the Val di Cecina, which Manager-Winemaker Dominique Génot runs in an organic and biodynamic fashion. He has planted 11 grape varieties and applies the latest winemaking techniques from Bordeaux to make what he says will be the next cult wines: Caiarossa, a blend of 8 varieties and Bacche Rosse, his premium wine.
With all the winemaking, there’s bound to be spirits. When Leonello Morelli started making grappa from local grapes in 1904, little did he imagine that Italy would become part of the European Union and that Liquorificio Morelli would grow into an international business. Today, fourth generation Marco Morelli and his family source the grape must from the best wine regions in Italy, including Tuscany, and make a vast array of the most exquisite grappas and infused spirits, some aged up to 18 months in French wood, sold in the most exclusive hotels, restaurants and wine bars. (Liquorificio Morelli, www.liquorimorelli.com )
Traditional Tuscan cuisine stems from the variety and abundance of fish and seafood from sea, rivers and lakes, as well as water fowl, game, pork, meats, vegetables, olive oils and cheeses, many of which we can taste right here in the U.S..
Sheep roam freely on the slopes of the Pisan Hills and for four generations, Caseificio Busti has grown from a small manufacturer of Pecorino Toscano into a large producer of 45 different types of cheeses some of which are already sold in the US. “Each cheese is different” said manager Mr. Enzo Fallani. “The rind is natural and the taste and fat content depend on the season,” he continued. (Caseificio Busti, via Marconi, Accaiaiolo – 56043 Fauglia, wwww.caseificiobusti.it )
In November 2007, a 3.3-pound truffle found by an Italian truffle hunter near Pisa fetched $330,000 on the auction block for a charity in the US . For Filippo Gemigniani, they may not be that big, but the abundance of truffles and mushrooms in the Pisa region has fueled a growing business of truffles, truffle products and mushrooms that sell world wide. (Gemignaci, Tartufi e funghi, V.le Marcooni, 89, 56028 San Miniato (Pisa), www.filippogemigniani.it )
Handcrafted jams, sauces, pastas….
Renata Regolini who lives in the same house her great grand parents built the beginning of the 20th century started making jams with fruit from her orchard, which she grows organically, as a hobby. Today the production of artisanal jams from pumpkin and red peppers to apricots and strawberry is a business to which she’s added Extra Virgin Olive oil. She plans to build an agritourism guest house with the profits.(Azienda Agricola Regolini Renata, Via della Ruga 2, 56034 Chianni, tel: 0587/647124, www.renataconfettueextra.it)
Ilaria Belli, owner of Sapore di Salse, and her family bought an old three floor winery with vaulted ceilings and thick walls to manufacture organic sauces and related products with the best ingredients Italy has to offer, according to recipes she elaborates in her lab. What a reception they gave us! Crostini spread with each of their sauces: pesto with basil from Pra, sauces with San Marzano tomatoes, Tuscan prosciutto and pecorino, all washed with fresh wines from the region. (www.salsebelli.com)
In Lari, a gem of a medieval village, Pastificio Martelli has been standing for centuries at the foot of the castle. Generations of the Martelli worked there until they bought it in 1926. “Water is very chalky and hard here. It isn’t good to drink but it’s good for pasta,” says Lorenzo Martelli, who works round the clock with members of his family to make, he claims, the best pasta in Italy: they slowly knead the best durum-wheats with cold water then dry it over a period of 50 or more hours in a sauna-like second floor at approx. 104ºF. Once dried they pack, date and ship the pasta to all corners of Italy and of the world. As soon as I got home I immediately set a pot of boiling water: the pasta is truly superb! (Martelli famiglia di pastai - - 56035 Lari (PI) - Tel. +39 0587 684238 - www.pastificiomartelli.it )
Farm holidays have become very popular and are mostly close to major tourist sites. Aside from providing an extra source of income to farmers they offer guests a taste of real country life in addition to sightseeing, activities like horseback riding, swimming, hiking and even helping out with the cheese making, the harvest - grapes, olives, fruit - and the animals. “Where else can children actually see and play with real chickens and sheep?” says Yuri Bertini and Giovanni Cannas of Azienda Agricola Lischeto, an organic farm sitting alone on top of a hill in a movie-like setting near the town of Volterra.
Officially recognized Agritourism farms display a sign. At Lischetto the rooms and apartments are spacious and comfortable, at a fraction of the cost of a hotel (rates start at EU 40 to 70 for two and offers special prices for children as well as full board); and the spa includes treatments with sheep milk, like the Cleopatra milk bath and with their own organic cosmetic line. Food, essential for a great holiday, is served family-style as in the Tuscan dinner prepared by Giovanni during our visit, with the farm’s own cheeses and pecorino cheese fondue, fresh farm produce, regional wines, oven-roasted wild boar hunted by Giovanni and organic prosciutto and meats. www.agrilischeto.com
Beyond the shadow of the Leaning Tower the Province of Pisa is a world where every step triggers a slice of history, every bite has its reason to be, every sip of wine tastes of the earth that produces it.
For additional information on what to do and where to go contact the Pisa Chamber of Commerce (www.pi.camcom.it +39 050-512229), and the Pisa Tourist Board ( www.pisaturismo.it +39.050.929774)
In the U.S. The Italy-America Chamber of Commerce is devoted to fostering trade between Italy and the U.S. For information about trade initiatives contact the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce Southeast at email@example.com or www.iacc-miami.com. _____________________
Simone Zarmati Diament is Editor of www.southfloridagourmet.com and radio host of Food & Wine Talk WSFG