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Food & Wine

Raise a glass to Chianti Classico in the Tuscany vineyards where this world-famous wine is produced. And let us show you where they make some of the other vintages in these rolling pastures. Around almost every corner you’ll find a winery that will invite you in to taste the delicious flavours they have lovingly produced from the grapes that ripen under the Tuscan sun. Don't worry if you're no wine expert, we've written a helpful bluffer’s guide – you’ll soon understand just why these wines grace the world’s top cellars. And yet it’s not all about wine in Tuscany – don’t miss a glass of one of the excellent craft beers being brewed here. The local food is equally appetising and just as celebrated. Pack your shopping bag with rustic bread, fat tomatoes, salumi and fresh pasta at the local markets. Look out for wild boar and truffles, Tuscany’s signature ingredients, staples of the menus of fine restaurants and family-run trattoria. And make a date to visit one of the region’s irresistible food festivals.

Food & Wine

Raise a glass to Tuscan wine


Tuscan wines are world-famous and renowned for being among some of the very best. But why are the wines so good here and which grapes are they made from? What types should you try and when? Questions, questions. Join us for a quick canter through the vineyards and all will be explained.
How long have they been making wine in Tuscany?
We’ve got the Etruscans to thank for planting the vines here, sometime in the 8th century BC. These fruits have thrived down the centuries, nurtured by Romans, medieval monks, the local aristocracy, and today’s winemakers.
So which grapes are behind these famous wines?
Tuscany is renowned for its reds and sangiovese is the best-known local grape, but others play a significant role in creating Tuscany’s delicious tipple and there are redoubtable whites, too. Local red varieties include canaiolo, colorino, malvasia nera and mammolo, while whites are made from trebbiano, malvasia, vermentino and vernaccia. Plus cabernet franc, merlot and sauvignon blanc are welcome interlopers from further afield. The balance of the different grapes used to make a wine is responsible for the distinct flavours you’ll taste from vineyard to vineyard. 

Tuscany’s grape harvest stretches from August to October. Photo: John Crum/Alamy
When can I visit to see the grape harvest in action?
The different varieties, microclimates of the vineyards, and, of course, terroir make it hard to pin a date on when to pick the grapes. This is hill country, so you’ll see many vineyards high on the slopes making the most of the sun. Early-ripening grapes, such as chardonnay, might be harvested in Tuscany in late August, while sangiovese is traditionally gathered in early- to mid-October.
What are the names I should look out for and where will I find local producers?
Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vin Santo are among Tuscany’s headliners. The heart of Chianti wine production is between Florence and Siena, around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve, with the very best known as Chianti Classico. Brunello is produced near Montalcino, south of Siena, and Vin Santo is made across the region. Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are other big names to seek out. A new generation of super-Tuscans emerged in the 20th century, which has since joined the Tuscan firmament. One of the originals is Bolgheri, from the town of the same name near Livorno, and now a DOC in its own right. Check out smaller DOCs, too, such as Colline Lucchesi near Lucca and Parrina from Grosseto. 
Grapes are cut from the vines by hand. Photo: Cultura Creative (RF)/Alamy
What if I don’t know my DOC from my DOCG?
It’s simple. DOC means Denominazione di Origine Controllata and for DOCG add e Garantita on the end. DOCG is superior. These initials tell you that the wine has been made subject to specific regulations, such as where the grapes were grown, the level of alcohol, and how long the wines must age. If you see the initials IGT, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, that means the wine isn’t subject to these regulations but is still worth quaffing.
Most important, when is best to drink what?
Pop a Vernaccia di San Gimignano after a year, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a wine from Bolgheri after two. Chiantis can be enjoyed within five, though some can be laid down for 15 years. You won’t be able to sip Brunello for at least four years and some say you’d do best to wait for a decade or more. Vin Santo, best known as a dessert wine, although there are bone-dry versions available, too, is usually aged for a minimum of three years.
And how best to drink it?
What doesn’t Chianti go with – pizza, pasta, a hearty stew… the choice is yours. A glass of Brunello will wash down a Fiorentina steak. If pasta Bolognese is on the menu, you can’t go wrong with a fruity Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and a light, crisp Vernaccia di San Gimignano is just made for fish. Biscotti and a sweet vin santo are made in heaven – just don’t forget to dip the biscuit into the wine. To Tuscany has a fantastic range of villas for wine lovers, such as Villa Riecine, set above the winery on a vineyard in Chianti villas

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A beer festival in Tuscany?


If I offered to take you to a beer festival in Tuscany, you’d probably think I was confused. If I then drove you half an hour south-east of Siena and led you along a couple of kilometres of gravel track to a small farm in the middle of nowhere, you’d probably think I was lost. Yet, for more than a decade, brewers from across Italy (and the world) have converged on this rural spot outside Buonconvento each September to celebrate some of Italy, and the world’s, very best beers.

During the past 20 years, Italy’s microbrewing community has grown faster than yeast in a fermentation vat. As with all things food-and-drink related, Italian brewmasters take their beer very seriously. Yet, they also like to have fun while sharing their passion with as many people as possible, which is what the Festival of Small Breweries – Villaggio della Birra – is all about.

The main action centres on a large barn, where festival-goers are engaged in sampling different beers while soaking up the sun and listening to music performed by local bands. Inside, a largely young crowd of beer enthusiasts choose from the rows of pumps on the bars lining the walls and pile their plates with delicious local food, such as porchetta or wild boar stew. While it would be easy to try a few too many beers here, Villaggio della Birra is aimed at connoisseurs and families are welcome, too.

The beer is uniformly excellent. On offer are some of the finest brews produced in Italy, Belgium, the UK, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Germany and the US. Pale ales such as IPA English and Saison are popular with Italian brewers, as are blond ales and porters. There are more unusual brews, too; one microbrewery, Loverbeer, specialises in sour ales, which have a distinctive flavour and are mostly on the stronger side, around the 8 per cent ABV mark. Pilsners, spiced ales and bocks (German-style strong lager) also make an appearance. For an authentic Tuscan brew, try Birrificio L’Olmaia. Who says it’s all about the wine in Tuscany?

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Three must-visit Tuscan food festivals


Tuscany is food heaven. Crostini, fennel salami, bistecca alla Fiorentina, fish stew and chestnut cake – these are just some of the tempting local delights that await you. Then there are the wines: luscious Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino and the sweet Vin Santo, which is best served with biscotti. Go straight to the source of Tuscany’s edible treasures by visiting a festival, known locally as a sagre

Here are three of the best.
1. Bravio delle Botte Montepulciano
If you’re near the town of Montepulciano on the last Sunday of August, be sure to catch the Bravio delle Botti Eight teams of two runners (spingitori), each representing a different district, compete in this annual race by rolling an 80kg wine barrel through the town centre – a gruelling uphill journey for most of the 1.8km route. As the streets narrow, the barrels become more cumbersome, resulting in frequent collisions. First to reach the Piazza Grande wins the painted cloth bearing the image of the town’s patron saint. Everyone is rewarded with a feast of local food.
San Miniato Truffle Fair
The fragrant local white truffle is celebrated on the last three weekends of November in the medieval market town of San Miniato, between Pisa and Florence. The prized funghi is available to sample and buy in different forms, including oils and paste, and there’s extra virgin olive oil, honey, pecorino, chocolate, focaccia, pickles, cakes and other products on sale, too. Meanwhile, the town’s restaurants serve up special dishes, such as a simple pasta cooked with truffle oil and fresh mushrooms.
Fest’ all’Olio, Vitolini
The latest olive oil and wine goes under the spotlight at the Fest’ all’Olio in Vitolini in November. The celebrations begin with a special themed dinner drawing on this produce from the local olive groves and vineyards. On the following day, stalls set out around the town, offering tastings, restaurants put on special menus and there are tours of the olive groves and vineyards, too. 

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Why Tuscan craft beers are in a league of their own


Imagine you run a new brewery in the UK or US. Your first sale is probably going to be on tap in a pub. You’ve taken that tap from another beer, and when your first pint is sold, it’ll be at the expense of other beers on the bar.

Now imagine you’re a new Tuscan brewer instead. There’s a good chance your first sale will be to a restaurant, and that the customer has opted for it instead of a local wine. They’re probably going to be pairing it with the local cuisine rather than drinking it alone.

This alternative perspective affects everything a Tuscan brewer does, from the flavour and alcohol content of the beer to the way it’s packaged. That’s why the best Tuscan craft beers are not like other beers.

Ancient varieties of grain are used to make Tuscan beers. Photo: Villaggio della Birra

Initially inspired by America, with nods to famous traditions in the UK, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic, the only problem with the current global craft beer boom is that it’s starting to look a bit the same wherever you go. No matter where they are or what their background, it seems every aspiring brewer wants to create a US-style IPA, German Berliner Weisse or British golden ale. Italy – and Tuscany in particular – is a glorious exception to this trend.

Sure, hip breweries such as Chianti Brew Fighters offer style and substance with perfect examples of celebrated styles such as Irish porters or strong Belgian ales. But the entire identity of Italian food and drink is founded on celebrating local ingredients. Tuscan craft brewers recognise that they are part of this tradition.
Birrificio La Petrognola has a broad range that covers the obvious international bases but also brews an award-winning beer called Marron (6.5% ABV), featuring the celebrated local chestnuts.

The vast majority of beers use malted barley as their base, but in Tuscany a variety of ancient grains that have faded from use elsewhere are still cultivated. Farro (spelt) is a common feature in local cuisine. Added to beers such as Petrognola’s 100% Farro (4% ABV) or Birrificio Math’s Toscana Farro E Miele (6% ABV), it creates a soft, slightly spicy character that has a faint echo of Belgian wheat beer but stands on its own as a style unique to the region.
La Stecciaia takes the experiment further, with ales such as Senatrice (6.8% ABV) incorporating an ancient variety of durum wheat that adds spice and a Champagne-like spritz to a Belgian-style golden ale, and others featuring grains such as oats and emmer wheat.

These beers complement wine rather than directly competing with it, offering an alternative, matched to local cuisines. At restaurants such as Papposileno you can compare how a beer – for example Amiata’s Bastarda Rossa (6.5% ABV), a blonde chestnut ale – brings out nuances in the pappardelle with beef that are different from the contrasts offered by a juicy Chianti.

For too long, beer has been seen as separate from the rest of the culinary world; an outsider, not quite good enough to be taken seriously. Perhaps it was always going to be beer’s arrival in wine country that saw it finally take the place it deserves at the table.

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Shop like a Tuscan (at some of the best food markets in the world)


Food is part of the Tuscan identity and the markets here are famous for selling great quality local produce. So how can you make the most of your Tuscan market experience to get an authentic taste of the region?

Here are our top tips for shopping at food markets in Tuscany.
1. Don’t try to overcomplicate things
Firstly, keep it simple. You’ll find Tuscan flavours to savour even if you just buy a loaf of freshly made bread and some local olive oil to dip it in, a packet of ricciarelli or cavallucci biscuits to share, or a sandwich made with pecorino or caciotta cheese and local salumi (if you’ve never tasted a finocchiona sandwich, you really should).

That Tuscan bread forms the basis of many favourite regional dishes, too, which are easy to make at your villa – such as ribollita (vegetable soup), pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomatoes), and summer favourite panzanella (tomato and bread salad). Pici, a thick rustic spaghetti from the Siena area, is delicious dressed with a tomato or ragù sauce.
2. Buy what is in season
Italians always cook with the vegetables and fruits that are in season, just as they return to the same cheese stall week after week. Don’t be afraid to ask to try the food you’re thinking of buying – you will learn by tasting as you shop. ‘Posso assaggiare, per favore’ is all you need to say.
There are markets across Tuscany, but here are some of our favourites.
Try a freshly made Tuscan sandwich for size. Photo: Hemis/Alamy
Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo, Florence
Try specialities such as a Lampredotto panino (tripe sandwich) at the food hall in Florence’s 19th-century iron-and-glass-covered market. You’ll find carne Chianina here, too, the prestigious meat from Chianina cattle, one of the oldest breeds in the world, from nearby Valchiana. Ask for a Fiorentina, a thick cut of beef that has the bone attached, then cook it rare back at the villa. Time and place: 10am-12pm daily, Piazza del Mercato Centrale.
Mercato delle Vettovaglie, Livorno
Sometimes simply called Mercato Centrale, the fishermen deliver their catch in the morning, and by lunchtime the signore livornese are rustling up delicacies such as cacciucco alla livornese (a thick soup with fish and seafood), triglie alla livornese (red mullet cooked in tomatoes and garlic), and baccalà alla livornese (cod with potatoes and onion in a tomato). The market has two rooms, one for fish and the other for fruit, veg, bread, wine and other local products, so you’ll find everything you need. Red mullet or cod are good choices for building up your confidence in cooking like the Tuscans – and some local white wine to accompany the dish you create. Time and place: 7.30am-2pm Monday to Saturday, Via Buontalenti.
Thursday market, San Gimignano
What better setting for some gastronomic shopping than beneath the towers of San Gimignano? The town’s Thursday market offers local products such as saffron and salumi made from the Cinta Senese, a breed of pigs that’s bred on the Sienese hills, that include prosciutto, salami and capocollo. Then there’s pecorino from Val d’Orcia. Pick up a porchetta sandwich as you browse (roasted suckling pig with garlic and herbs) – when it’s good, it’s divine. Time and place: 8.30am-1.30pm Thursday, Piazza Duomo, Piazza delle Erbe, Piazza della Cisterna.
Shop for dinner at Livorno’s Mercato delle Vettovaglie. Photo: Federico Tovoli/W Pics/Alamy
Mercato Logge del Grano, Arezzo
Tuscany has its fair share of farmers’ markets offering the opportunity to buy direct from the producers seasonal, genuinely local (and also organic) products, often with DOP or IGP certificates of quality. This one in the province of Arezzo is good for Tuscan wines, oil, cheeses such as pecorino and caprino, salumi such as briciolona and finocchiona. Freshly made dishes include polpette (meatballs) and sauces for pasta. Time and place: 9am-2.30pm, 4.30-8pm Monday to Saturday and first Sunday of every month, Piazzetta Logge del Grano, 5.
Terra di Prato, Prato
Prato is easy on the eye and has a wonderful weekly farmers’ market, too, where you can buy salumi, cheeses, meat, fish, honey, jam, wine, oil, fresh pasta and bread. The stallholders take a summer break in the second half of August, so it’s best to check the Facebook page for details @mercatoterradiprato. Time and place: 8am-1pm Saturday, Piazza di Mercato Nuovo.
Saturday market, Cortona
The market in pretty Cortona takes place in one of its most picturesque spots, the Piazza Signorelli and surrounding streets. Pick up local cheeses and salumi and a loaf of Tuscan bread to whip up a few bruschetta topped with some plump summer tomatoes. If you want inspiration about how to cook like a local, stop for lunch at Osteria del Teatro. Time and place: Saturday morning, Piazza Signorelli. Osteria del Teatro, via Giuseppe Maffei 2.

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What to expect from a Tuscan Cookery Class?

”Mess, don’t press!” Simone, chef-owner of the Ristorante Malborghetto, is showing me how to make a ragù.

“This way we mix all the flavours – and we don’t burn the pan,” he smiles. He’s right. Although we cook the meaty stew for more than two hours, a little gentle coaxing with the spoon and a regular slug of water keeps the washing-up to a minimum. “Water adds no flavour and takes no flavour away,” counsels Simone.

This is just one of the many tips, useful for a host of recipes, that Simone imparts during the three-hour cookery class my husband, Dean, and I have signed up for at his restaurant in Lecchi in Chianti. It’s a fun way to spend a morning of our villa holiday with To Tuscany

And the ragù is only one of the dishes we will prepare during the course of the morning in his professional kitchen. By the time we are joined by our friends for lunch – hungry to sample the results of our morning’s toil over a hot stove – we will be ready to serve up a four-course feast, featuring crostone di porcini, salsicce e fagioli, and tiramisu, too.

Our session began earlier that morning with a chat over a coffee, gaining a little insight into how Simone had ended up championing the produce of his native region in this pretty stone hamlet in the Tuscan hills. Then, aprons on – embroidered with our names, souvenirs to take home – we got straight down to business prepping lunch.

We started at the end, with the tiramisu, “to allow it plenty of time to set”, explained Simone. First, he got us separating the eggs like experts, shell to shell, then whisking the whites until we could lift the bowl upside down over our heads without risking a foamy new hairdo.

In another bowl, we beat the yolks with some mascarpone and sugar. Then we folded in the whites to create a light cream and began assembling the dish, layer upon layer of sweet liquid and sponge biscuits quickly dipped in a bowl of watery espresso. “Just touch the coffee,” said Simone, “you don’t want it to be too strong, you want to give a hint of its flavour.”

With the tiramisu in the fridge and the ragù underway, we turned our attention to the art of making gnocci, kneading a soft dough of potatoes, flour, egg, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and a sprinkling of nutmeg. We rolled sausages of the mixture and chopped them into thumbnail-sized dumplings, rolling some into balls in our hands. Then we placed them on a tray for firming up in the fridge before their final destiny, the boiling water bath in the corner.

Next, we browned a healthy pile of meaty sausages, from Simone’s favourite local butcher, in olive oil, garlic, sage and rosemary. The heady aroma infused the cannellini beans and tomatoes we added to the pan, slowly braising the hearty mixture with the help of our constant friend – “a zip of water”.

Then Simone taught us a little frill, how to create a Parmesan basket to serve our ragù and gnocci in. Turning a pancake of molten cheese over a small glass bowl is not as easy as it sounds. But Simone had seen it all before: “Once you’ve done your first, it will become easier,” he smiled patiently at my initial lop-sided attempt.

And finally, we reached the beginning, searing the crostone on Simone’s large grill, then assembling the earthy topping of porcini, garlic, rosemary and salt. “Just clean the porcini with a damp cloth, not too much water,” he advised.

With our friends now seated at the table in Simone’s cosy dining room, we put our creations to the taste test, each course accompanied by an expertly paired glass of wine. The diners all agreed, we had, indeed, prepared a Tuscan feast – thanks to more than a little help from our new chef friend.

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What’s on in Tuscany this Autumn?

Tuscany’s truffles may not have the profile of Piedmont or Périgord, yet those in the know prize the precious white nuggets found in the hills here, especially around San Miniato. There are strict rules about how and when truffles are gathered, with specialist hunters heading out with their dogs to snout out the rare fungi in secret locations deep in the woods from October to December.

The quality of truffles depends on the weather, the best conditions being not too wet nor too dry. These fungi are best eaten when they’re fresh and fragrant, within three days of being unearthed. A good round truffle with few imperfections is the one to buy. Wash it under running water with a small brush and dry carefully.

Hunters and their dogs seek out the fungi in secret locations. Photo: Marka/Alamy

A truffle the size of an egg should be enough for a main course for four to five people. Make sure it’s the dominant flavour of your dish – after all, why should it compete? – and don’t overcook it. Shave the truffle to make it go further and add just before serving to capture as much of its flavour and aroma as you can.

San Miniato hosts a major local festival. Photo: Federico Tovoli/VW Pics/Alamy

Delicious ways to serve truffle include sprinkling shavings over pasta or risotto. Pop slices under the skin of a chicken and leave to infuse before roasting, or add it to a soup or sauce. And here’s a tip: infuse eggs or cheese with lovely truffle flavour by storing them with it in an airtight box.

As autumn turns to winter, celebrate the truffle season at the special markets and fairs that spring up across the region. Here are some of the best to visit: >
Corazzano Truffle Festival
Listen to talks or just indulge in tasting truffles at Corazzano’s popular annual festival.www.eventiesagre.it
Balconevisi Truffle and Porcini Mushroom Fair
This lesser-known sagra, held in mid October, is the place to buy truffles straight from those who gather them from the ground. Other tasty produce, such as oil and walnuts, will be on sale, too.
San Miniato Truffle Fair
Last three weekends of November
This internationally renowned festival, started in 1969 and held over the last three weekends of November, is the highlight of Tuscany’s truffle season, with lots of gastronomic events to enjoy and a busy market to browse.
www.san-miniato.com
San Giovanni d’Asso Truffle Fair
Another classic Tuscan truffle fair, which takes place on the second and third weekends of November. If you make a date to visit, be sure to look around the town’s museum dedicated to the famous fungi, too.
www.cittadeltartufo.com
All aboard the Nature Train
Travel to a truffle festival in style on a steam train. Board the Treno Natura in Siena for a journey with sublime views of Tuscany’s countryside to San Giovanni d’Asso. It’s very popular, so book ahead.
www.terresiena.it/trenonatura

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Ten quick facts about olive oil

1 Just like wine, olive oils are awarded different labels and grades depending on their taste, production methods, origin and chemistry.

2 Olive oils are classified by taste through a blind test, which is carried out by a panel of professional tasters.

3 Extra virgin olive oil, which is judged to have a superior taste, is produced without the use of any chemicals and contains no more than 0.8 per cent acidity. Virgin olive oil is also untainted with chemicals and has an acidity of less than 2 per cent.

4 Cold-pressed olive oil is superior because the olive pulp created during the production process has been pressed below 27 degrees to ensure minimum flavour is lost.

5 Olive oil is the only vegetable oil that can be consumed freshly pressed from the fruit, without the use of solvents.

6 The olive harvest needs to be timed perfectly to ensure the acidity levels are just right for oil to be graded as extra virgin.

7 Research suggests that eating around two tablespoons of virgin or extra virgin olive oil a day can regulate cholesterol and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease – it has even been linked to cancer prevention. Why? Because it is packed with antioxidants and has a high content of mono-saturated fatty acids.

8 Light, heat and air reduce the quality of olive oil, so it is best kept in a sealed, dark glass bottle and stored in a cool place.

9 Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. Lower grade oils only have a shelf life of a few months and good-quality olive oil should be used within a year.

10 Some of the world’s best extra virgin olive oil comes from the Chianti region of Tuscany, where single-estate bottled oils are the most sought after and expensive on the market.

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