Chianti: Singing for Sting in the Hills


Tonight I’m just going to tell a quick story about Chianti.





The past couple of weeks I’ve been talking a lot about my love affair with Tuscany. Instead of Dante’s circles of Hell, my visit was like ascending circles of Italian Heaven. First it was Florence, then Siena, and finally, Chianti.

As much as I love all the sites and sounds a city offers, I don’t feel like I can really breathe or relax until I get into the countryside.

On that trip in 2004, my family and I stayed at Castello di Meleto. The nearest town was Gaiole in Chianti, so we were right in the heart of, well, Chianti.

The castle itself was beautiful, perched on a hill overlooking a rolling landscape and lush, green fields. I absolutely love this place. Our room, the people, the grounds, the castle, the vistas. Everything.

Meleto has a long, winding driveway lined by cypress trees that snakes back and forth, showing off the neighboring landscape and the castle’s vineyard.

My mom was a seasoned runner who always ran in the mornings on our trips. I had just taken up running and the view was pretty enough that I could be fairly easily roused from my deep slumbers—just one snarl instead of the usual ten—and happily go running.

Our route was quick and easy. We would just run down the driveway and back. It wasn’t all that long, but it was enough to help wake us up and make us realize how fantastic life was at that very moment. You know, to really get the blood pumping and experience all the great things about being alive, healthy, and able to take in the views when everyone was still asleep. Glorious!

I can’t remember which family member found this out, but we learned that Sting had a property and yoga retreat in Chianti called Il Palagio. We weren’t exactly sure where it was, but we thought it was very close. In reality, it’s 30 km/nearly 19 miles and probably an hour away on Chianti's maze-like roads near a town called Figline Valdarno.

So one morning we ran down the hill, giggling about Sting and belting out "Roxanne." We knew he would hear us and invite us to some yoga and dinner. Oh, yes.

We were always peppy starting out, seeing as it was all downhill. On the way back up, however, we tended to shut-up as our lungs and legs started to burn. I took to running up the drive as fast as I could, just to get the pain over and done with.

This continued a couple of times until one morning, on the way down, we saw Sting at the bottom of the hill with a baseball bat.

"Shut-up, already. I'm trying to sleep," he yelled with furrowed brow and fire in his eyes. "I will put out your red light, capisce?"


He was at the bottom of the hill with a bottle of wine and a yoga mat, praising our running and singing skills.

Oh, right. That's not true, either.

Actually, we heard the sound of machinery.

“Hmm what’s that?”


The beautiful, tall cypress trees obscured our view of the offending noise.

Whatever it was got closer as we rounded the hairpin turns further and further down the hill, until the vineyard was in view.

Suddenly, we realized it was a huge tractor and it looked like it was spraying something.

“Ahhhhh! Nooooo! Pesticides?!?” (I don’t really know if they actually were pesticides. Thinking back it might have been dust but I distinctly remember being convinced it was some kind of spray.)

The cloud started to float toward us. Immediately, we turned around and began running back up the hill.

I held my breath and pulled the front of my tank-top over my nose and mouth and sprinted as fast as I could, leaving my mother behind.

Once at the top we laughed a lot and, then, my mom yelled at me for dropping her like a sack of potatoes. (Sorry mom! I was running for help, I swear.) Fight or flight? I "flighted." Big time.

And that’s the story of how I began my running and singing career in Chianti.

I’ll be sure to do some more posts about Chianti and Castello di Meleto, so stay tuned. Come to think of it, that part of my trip was completely chock full of great, memorable experiences. It’s the place to go, I tell ya.

Siena's Panforte: Showing Fruitcake Who's Boss Since the Middle Ages

Have you ever eaten something and not particularly liked it upon first bite but developed desire to eat it anyway? It’s as if there’s something about it that you know you could learn to love over time. That’s what panforte, a confection from Siena, does to me. Panforte means “strong bread.” The name comes from the blend of warm spices that go into it, like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and coriander. I think its name is also appropriate because it’s so heavy and dense you could probably use it as a mild weapon if necessary.

Something along these lines: “Don’t mess with me now, I’m just back from the pastry shop and I’ve got strong bread in this bag.”

Most people compare panforte to fruitcake. I admit, there are some similarities. They’re both substantial cakes full of nuts and dried/candied fruits. They are both traditionally Christmas cakes, although panforte is now available year-round in Siena, Tuscany, and I’ve even seen some in Umbria.

The glaring difference to me, however, is that fruitcake is almost universally disgusting to me. I’ve had a single bite of one that I didn’t mind but, other than that, I loathe most of them with the fire of a thousand burning suns.

In my strong, but humble opinion, it’s the quality of the ingredients that take panforte out of the realm of fruitcake and into the realm of delicacy. How many times have you seen a fruitcake and it has those neon-green and fire-engine red, toxic-looking “cherries” peering out at you like demented eyes? And green cherries? That’s just unnatural. I do not want them in my mouth. Ever.

Panforte? Recipes differ, of course, and there are two main types. Panforte Nero has bitter almonds and cocoa which give it a deep, dark color. Panforte Margherita is lighter and a little less intensely flavored. They’re both full of good, natural stuff like warm, deep spices, honey, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, figs, dates, and candied fruits like lemon, orange peel, and even melon.

A thick, sticky dough is made by mixing the chopped fruits, nuts, and a bit of flour with a boiled honey and sugar mixture. It is then spread evenly over wax paper in a springform pan and baked. The final product is dusted with confectioner’s sugar and then cut into wedges. What you get in the end is rich and thick; a cake that leans toward candy territory. It’s sweet, spicy, nutty, and sometimes a little bitter.

Throughout Siena, shops lure you to their windows with stacks of these cakes, made using their special recipe, showing off the bounty of ingredients they’ve packed into a single slice. I think this is where my strange attraction to panforte comes into play. I get to Siena, I’m surrounded by remarkable medieval architecture, I’m lulled into a happy historical stupor, and, then, unique, historic desserts start winking at me through all of these windows. How can I not get a slice?

Panforte, you see, has a long historical connection to Siena. I have a great book about Italian food and its history called Culinaria Italy. It says that the first mention of panforte shows up in a document from 1205, so it has been around in one form or another for a long time.

The book recounts a legend about the creation of panforte. As the story goes, a young man named Nicoló de Salimbeni got sick of his indulgent ways and gave up all of his worldly possessions to a nun named Sister Berta. These possessions included a bag of spices, which were very dear in those days, and a recipe for a sweetmeat of apples, flour, and dried fruits called melatello. Sister Berta made the recipe but decided it was too extravagant for nuns to eat, so she passed it on to a bishop. The recipe continued to pass from person to person until it reached the hands of a famous cook named Ubaldino, who was so well-known that Dante wrote about him in the Divine Comedy. Ubaldino changed the recipe a bit and, essentially, created the first panforte. Panforte then became one of Siena’s exports and was thought to be an aphrodisiac because of the amount of exotic spices used in the recipes. It appeared in Venice around 1370. (Culinaria Italy, ed. Claudia Piras (h.f.ullmann, 2008), 245.)

So if you’re ever in Siena, grab a slice and wander the medieval streets while pondering history and/or trying to discern any aphrodisiac effects.

If you can’t make it to Siena, you can always try making panforte at home. I haven’t made one yet and there are lots of recipes strewn around the web, but these are the ones I’ve been looking at so far: Davina Cucina and Bon Appetit. When I do make one, I’ll be sure to do a post on it.

If you make or have made one in the past, feel free to leave a comment about your experience!

Oh, and although I really, really hate fruitcake, I'm always willing to give them a taste. If you have any tried, true, beloved, delicious, and neon fruit-free recipes, feel free to let me know!

Siena, Part Two: Medieval and Magical

On Monday I wrote about my first trip to Siena, which is south of Florence and in the center of Tuscany. I got off the bus and looked out to see a fairy-tale view. Well, I rummaged through a bunch of boxes and found all of my pictures from that trip!

Here’s the view that took my breath away.

I took the photo before I had a digital camera, so when I scanned and cropped the image, it just came out looking even more like a painting. Beyond all of the fairy-tale stuff, I find Siena to be a really relaxing city. It’s a good gateway between the busier, often tourist-packed streets of Florence and the quieter towns and countryside Tuscany offers. There aren’t a ton of must-see sights, but the hilly, curved, stone streets tempt you to explore the medieval architecture and sometimes unexpected vistas.

Two of the main sites are the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo. The Duomo is one of my favorite churches in Italy (Ahem. So far. There are so many more to see, you know.) It was first completed in the last half of the 13th century, but an addition in the 14thcentury made it one of the largest churches in Italy at the time.

Its façade is stunning, but it’s the deep greenish-black and white marble on the tower and in the interior that makes it feel somehow lighter, hopeful even, to me.

The black and white marble, by the way, is a nod to the city itself, whose shield is also black and white. The story behind the choice of these colors relates to the founding of Rome. If you know the legend of Rome, you’ll remember two twins, Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf, founded the city. Well apparently, Remus’s two twin sons, Senius and Aschius, ran off with the she-wolf statue from Apollo’s temple. Senius, from whom the city takes its name, rode a black horse, while Aschius was on a white one. As you walk around, be on the lookout for statues or depictions of a she-wolf suckling a child. There’s even one in the floor of the Duomo. While you’re looking for she-wolves, you might notice a number of other beasts, birds, insects, and other images around the city on flags, tiles, or lampposts. These denote which one of the 17 contrade, or districts, you are in.

Originally there were 59 contrade, which were created for military and administrative purposes in the Middle Ages. Tuscany was not stable or unified at the time. Cities and towns faced constant struggles over power and land. Siena and Florence, for example, had an especially torrid relationship. So in the 14th century, each contrada provided men to aid in Siena’s military defense. Over time, the number dropped to the 17 that remain today. Four of them are nobile or noble for various acts/reasons, like providing exceptional help in a battle. Each has its own symbol, coat of arms, motto, museum, and fountain. Most contrade have both an adversary, which is often a neighbor, and an ally.  There’s the:

  • Aquila or Eagle
  • Bruco or Caterpillar
  • Chiocciola or Snail
  • Civetta or Little Owl
  • Drago or Dragon
  • Giraffa or Giraffe
  • Istrice or Crested Porcupine
  • Leocorno or Unicorn
  • Lupa or She-Wolf
  • Nicchio or Seashell
  • Oca or Goose
  • Onsa or Wave
  • Pantera or Panther
  • Selva or Forest
  • Tartuca or Tortoise
  • Torre or Tower
  • Valdimontone or Valley of the Ram

This may seem like another nice leftover from medieval times, but the contrade still play a role in Siena today. Twice a year, on July 2 and August 16, 10 members of the districts compete in a hugely popular bareback horse race called the Palio. Seven districts compete “by right” and 4 draw for a chance. One of my Eyewitness Travel Guide books says it is a medieval tradition that dates back to 1283 but the Palio website states it takes place to

celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani. The holy apparition was therefore called "Madonna di Provenzano" in whose honour the very first Palio was run on August 16, 1656.” (More here)

The Palio, however, definitely retains an aura of medieval times with its costumes, flags, and ceremony. The race takes place in the center of town in the Piazza del Campo. There’s a central triangular area that fans out from one side to make the piazza. This part is fenced in and the area between it and the buildings makes a ring that is filled with sand.

Thousands of viewers pack the inner triangle and people sell off spaces in windows and on balconies for viewing the race. After all the ceremonial stuff is done, the race goes by in a flash. Then the celebrations start! [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM0YqFJrypk] I’ve never been to the Palio. To be honest, I have no desire to see the actual race. I don't really like horse races after a traumatic experience watching a steeplechase when I was a kid. But I was in Siena after the Palio one year when the celebration was still going on and I loved the atmosphere. The Oca/goose contrada won and while walking around town we stumbled on an impromptu party. The owner of a shop popped open a couple of bottles of prosecco for a crowd. One of the corks landed by me. I still have it today. I remember thinking at the time, “Ah, this is the life!” Everyone was singing, laughing, chatting, and enjoying the festivities and their win. On another trip, as we lazily strolled around the Piazza, a wedding party came out of the Palazzo Pubblico (which also has a civic museum if you’re interested). The bride, groom, and small group of friends and family hugged and kissed in the warm sun. It all seemed so lovely and relaxed.

Then the bride and groom walked around the Piazza as onlookers clapped and wished them well. I loved how public and intimate it was all at the same time. I would love to do something similar one day. That’s really what Siena has always been about for me: relaxed exploration. Yes, there are tourists, but there is also the beauty of life going on around you. You can go there and just be and see. I’m now partial to shopping a bit and then people-watching in the Piazza while eating fig gelato. My favorite experiences in Siena have always unfolded quietly like a gift. I didn’t go looking for them, they were just there. I said this on Monday, but I think it would be even better to use it as a home-base for a longer trip. I would love to experience more of the restaurants, markets, and the evenings. It’s so great in the day that I’d like to see what kind of magic twilight brings.