There are many special ingredients that make Tuscany such a unique and appealing region. The things that Tuscany is best known for include its wine, truffles, olive oil and food. It’s certainly worth learning about one or two of these specialities whilst in Tuscany by booking some fascinating experiences.
Growing in the Tuscan countryside, you will find the Tuscan white Truffle. Truffles are one of the most sought after and expensive cooking ingredients, they add a delicious strong flavour to dishes, as well as a touch of class.
Tuscany is also famous for the high quality Olive Oil it produces, which is made using a very specific and skilled process. Make sure you buy some to take home with you. Then of course there’s the world renowned wines that are made in Tuscany, this region is known for producing red wines that are smooth, spicy and of a medium body. Browse through the sections below to learn more about Tuscan specialities.
Hunting Truffles in Italy
Tuscany’s rolling landscape of lush green hills interlaced with vineyards, olive groves and pine forests bears many culinary fruits, but the most treasured of all is the truffle and we’re not talking about the chocolate variety here. The Romans hailed them for their aphrodisiac qualities - today cooks all over the world use them for their strong flavours and to add a touch of class to their dishes. These gourmet delicacies are so precious some are even worth their weight in gold, with the most prized White truffle or Alba truffle costing between £600 and £1300 per pound. The white truffle most famously hails from the Piedmont region of Italy, near the city of Alba. Every autumn the warty treats are plucked from between the roots of oak, hazel, poplar and beech and sold at the truffle markets and during the International White Truffle Festival of Alba. It is partly this festival and partly clever marketing that has resulted in the Alba truffle becoming the most revered truffle world-wide, but many believe the Tuscan white truffle found mainly in Siena and Pisa is just as flavoursome and much better value for money. For this reason more and more truffle lovers are starting to flock to Tuscany during the autumn months to experience all things truffles in a more intimate and less commercialised atmosphere. It is the perfect place and time to try, buy and even hunt truffles. For the serious trifolau – truffle hunter, it is possible to hunt for truffles virtually year round; starting in January – March with the dark winter truffles, March – April has the tan truffle or bianchetto which have been known to fool the inexperienced into thinking they are the more expensive prized white truffles, June to November sees the more common black or summer truffle and finally in September the first of the prized tartufo bianco or white truffles can be found. Trifolau are serious about keeping their truffle finds and locations secret, and generally hunt for truffles at night, although aside from the secrecy it is said that the scent of the truffle is stronger at night, and is therefore easier for the truffle dogs to find. Originally truffles were hunted with female pigs as it was thought that the scent from the truffles resembled that of the male pig pheromone, unfortunately truffles were also considered a delicious treat by the pigs, and many a truffle never got as far as a kitchen! Also as one hunter commented “it’s a lot easier to get a dog in the back of the car”. On a truffle hunt with Adrian Fletcher who's website paradox place has some terrific pictures of the day in San Giovanni d’Asso and Graeme Robertson of Guardian Newspaper: The dogs are trained from a young age with pieces of strong smelling cheese which are buried and the dogs sent to find them, eventually small truffles are buried for the dogs to find. Alternatively it is possible to send a promising dog to truffle hunting school, in all it takes around four years for a dog to become fully trained. A good hunting dog is invaluable, and each year there are reports of experienced hunting dogs being poisoned by rival hunters. Truffles resemble knobbly tubers and have a very pungent smell, they are found growing around the roots of trees, mainly oak, chestnut, poplars, limes, hazel and beech trees, and can be found up to a metre below ground. Once the dog indicates a possible find the trifolau uses a narrow spade to dig up the truffle without damaging it, and then returns the earth to the hole so that truffles can regrow for another year. All attempts to grow truffles in artificial environments or from seed have so far failed, it would seem Mother Nature knows her stuff and is not prepared to give up her secrets so easily. The end of September heralds the arrival of the white truffle – tartufo bianco, the high point in the truffle hunters’ year, and there are a number of festivals to celebrate this expensive delicacy. The largest and most popular of these is the Tartufo Bianco di Alba – The white truffle festival in Alba, held this year from 29th September until 11th November. Check with the official Tartufo Bianco di Alba – The white truffle festival website for dates for next year In the enclosed market is where you will find the truffle sellers, alongside the sellers is the stall of the truffle quality commission who will weigh and check a truffle for you, either before or after you have bought it. Every Sunday throughout the festival there is a fantastic outdoor food market selling all kinds of food and wine including truffles, but, please note the truffle sellers outside the indoor market are not regulated or licensed. If you are thinking of visiting the market it is wise to arrive early, because hundreds of Italian families visit every year and parking is at a premium. Alternatively try the lesser known festival of San Giovanni d’Asso (25 miles south east of Siena) which is held over two weekends in November, the quality of the truffles is on par with those sold in Alba, and certainly the prices are not nearly so high. San Giovanni d’Asso also has a museum dedicated to the truffle both the museum’s website and the town’s website will give further details and dates for future year’s festivals. Having bought your truffle – what to do with it? If you have purchased a tartufo blanco (white truffle) it is best to consume it as soon as possible as they do not keep for very long. With a white truffle all you need to do is slice it very finely or grate it over baked or fried eggs, or plain pasta. To cook the white truffle actually lessens the flavour. However, the opposite is true of the black truffle which needs to be sautéed in butter to bring out the best flavour, again serve with plain pasta. We have a range of accommodation ideally located to make the most of the truffle season, ranging from the delightful Il rattoppo, a charming house with private pool for two persons, as featured in the Guardian online. The small hamlet of Fattoria Armena which has just three apartments accommodating from 4 to 7 persons, each with its own private garden set in beautiful grounds surrounded by forest and olive groves. For further information on truffle hunters and truffle hunting, contact the office of the Association of Truffle Hunters of Siena, Via XX Settembre, 41, 53020 San Giovanni d’Asso (SI). Telephone 0577/803213. On a final note, if you do find a truffle but are not entirely sure – please do get someone to confirm that what you have found is indeed a delicacy – remember it is also the mushroom season and the inexperienced can easily get confused.Read more
Olive Oil Tuscany
Italy is renowned throughout the world for the high quality of its olive oil, and rightly so. Some of the best of this olive oil comes from the Tuscany region, with single estate bottled oil being the most highly prized, and the most expensive. The soil, type of tree grown, amount of sunshine and for that matter the amount of rain during the growing season all play their part in determining the flavour of the oil. A variety of olive trees are grown in Italy each with their own particular characteristics. The majority of the olive trees grown in Tuscany are Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolio, Maurino, Moraiolo and Taggiasca. The best type of soil to plant them in is clay or good loamy soil with plenty of drainage, although it is true that olive trees can still thrive in difficult conditions there is no guarantee of a reliable crop each year. It is essential that the trees have good irrigation throughout the growing season in order to maximise their yield. Olives crop, on the previous year's growth; therefore, annual pruning is essential for maintaining the health of the tree, ensuring an annual crop and encouraging an even fruit set throughout the tree. Olives are picked by hand as this causes the least damage to the fruit; they are then washed to remove any dirt and dust. Then within 24 to 48 hours of being harvested the olives, including the skin and stones are crushed into a pulp by stone mill or metal grinder. This pulp is then pressed using a traditional wooden press or a modern hydraulic one. This is the first pressing and strict guidelines must be adhered to during this process. In order to label a bottle “first cold pressing” or in the case of an industrial process “cold extraction” EU guidelines state that the olives must be pressed at a temperature below 27degrees. Perhaps the most skilled part of the process, is deciding when to harvest the olives, as this determines the flavour and taste. Picked too soon or too late the acidity of the fruit will not be right and will affect the quality and flavour of the oil. Extra virgin olive oil must have an acidity level of less than 1 percent. The Italian Government has introduced protected designation of origin labels for its olive oils DOP. In addition to this, olive oil from the Chianti region has a special quality assurance label of denomination of controlled origin DOC. It is quite normal for an extra virgin olive oil to have some sediment at the bottom of the bottle; this is because many of the oils have not been filtered after pressing in order to retain maximum flavour. Once bottled, the oil should be stored away from direct sunlight and should not be exposed to extremes of temperature, a cool pantry or cellar is ideal. Once opened the oil should be used within a year or by the consume by date on the label, although it is so delicious it is unlikely to last that long! Olive oil, in particular the pure extra virgin olive oil is a powerful antioxidant, containing monounsaturated fats, these are the good fats which can help reduce cholesterol levels, which is not only good for our hearts but also our general well being. In addition to all of the health benefits to be found in olive oil, it is also widely used in cosmetics, both in manufactured and natural products. It is used mixed with essential oils in moisturisers and has a long tradition of use in high quality soaps. To Tuscany would be delighted to welcome anyone wishing to take part in the olive harvest or witness the season first hand, particularly at the hamlets of Montebuoni and Montefiorile, where To Tuscany pick the olives growing in and around both of these hamlets, and take them to our neighbours at the vineyard Casanuova di Ama, who in turn take them to be cold pressed in Volterra, after which the oil is then bottled.Read more
Tuscany, as regards wines, has no equal the world over, thanks to a most felicitous nature, and to a civilization of the grapevine and of wine that has been decanted and refined over the centuries. Zeffito Cuiffoletti - Historian Tuscany holds a rich history of viticulture. Its rolling hills and Mediterranean climate provide the perfect spot for the production of good quality wines and during the last decade it has become known as the nation’s most creative producer. Tuscany also holds world recognition for its red wines, the majority of which come from the Sangiovese grape vines. These wines are generally spicy, with good acid levels, smooth texture and medium body. The most exclusive Sangiovese wine is Brunello di Montalcino, a high quality selected wine from a fortress town south of Siena. It is one of Italy’s most expensive wines and is now issued under more than a hundred different labels. This wine is produced solely from the Sangiovese grapevine and takes at least 10 years to reach maturity. Other Sangiovese wines are of course the famous Chianti and Chianti Classico. Although Sangiovese is their major grape, unlike Brunello di Montalcino, these wines also contain a small amount (between 10 and 15%) of Carbernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah grapes Chianti Classico comes from the famous land of vineyards that lie between Florence and Siena, with the towns of Greve, Radda and Castellina forming a triangle in the very heart of the Chianti area. Most of these wines belong to the Classico’s marketing consortium and bear the ‘Gallo Nero’ symbol that means ‘black rooster’. This gives the guarantee of a true bottle of Chianti Classico. Two kinds of Chianti Classico are available, these are known as ‘Standard’ and ‘Riserva’. Standard Chainti Classico is labelled with a Gallo Nero surrounded by a red border, whereas Riserva Chianti Classico is labelled with a Gallo Nero surrounded by a gold border. This is produced from some of the finest grapes and gives a minimum of 27 months aging to provide an additional full-bodied flavour. Many of the Chianti wines also hold the DOC/DOCG (Dominazione di Origine Controllato/ Dominazione di Origine Controllato e Guarantita) status. This is an Italian quality assurance label that was introduced in 1963 by the Italian government and amended in 1992 by the EU law for the Protected Designation of Origin. In order to meet the DOC/DOCG requirements wines must be produced within the specified region using defined methods and must also qualify a defined quality standard. Other important Sangiovese based red wines that hold the DOC/DOCG status include Tignanello and Sassicaia, whose prices and popularity are not too far behind those of Brunello di Montalcino. Others also include Montepulciano, Montalcino, Bolgheri, Carmignano and Maremma. Since the 1970’s a gradual emergence of more modern wines made from international grape varieties, together with the use of French ‘barriques’ or barrels, has led to what are now known as the ‘Super Tuscans’. Grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were introduced and mixed with the classic Sangiovese to produce other high quality wines but at a much lower cost due to the modern techniques used. Super Tuscan wines initially emerged following the abuse of ‘big names’ in Italian wine and the unsuccessful attempt at DOC/DOCG laws to restrict the damage that the abuse was causing to its reputation for high quality wines. These ‘avant garde’ methods however did not fit the new DOC/DOCG laws and the wines were forced to take the humble label of ‘Vini da Tavola’, known in England as basic ‘House Wine’. However, over time these wines have gained the reputation as being some of the finest ever made in Italy and their prices are well above those charged for the Vini da Tavola. Other than the popular reds, Tuscany also produces a small amount of white wines. The majority, however, have not enjoyed the prestige of the reds because until relevantly recently they were all produced from the workaday Trebbiano grape and tend to have quite a dull taste. An exception being Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which is produced from the Vernaccia grape, a well made crisp and dry white, one of the first whites to be awarded the DOC status. Nowadays however there are many other good whites produced in Tuscany, including the international variety of Chardonnays, Sauvignons, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio, together with more traditional whites such as Pomino and Vin Santo. And last.. but certainly not least comes the Grappa! Grappa or ‘grape stalk’ is a grape based pommice brandy (between 37.5% and 60% alcohol) made from pommace of the grape seeds, stalks and stems that are left over from winemaking after pressing. Often known as the by-product of Italian wine it can either be taken on its own or added as a ‘shot’ to an espresso coffee. It’s generally taken after meals to aid digestion so if feel the need for a ‘digestivo’ following that rich Tuscan meal you can always try a little Grappa!Read more
Organic Biodynamic Food
Set in a stunning location with views of the famous town of Montalcino, this company is a real dream. The method of cultivation is surprising and very unique. The ancient vineyards have had speakers installed which play music from Mozart day and night. Studies have shown that the impact of this has proven beneficial with the plants being more vigorous with more defence against parasites and disease, therefore minimising need of the use of chemicals. www.alparadisodifrassina.itRead more