Novembre a Toscana
Fall in the US is the season for apple picking, pumpkin carving, deer hunting and preparations for Thanksgiving. The air smells of hot apple cider, fresh cider donuts, pumpkin bread and turkey's roasting in the oven. In Tuscany this time of year, a different kind of harvest takes place.
With the smell of damp earth, roasted chestnuts and wood fires in the air, November is the time for olive and saffron harvests in Tuscany. Combined with wild boar hunts, and the exciting search for porcini mushrooms and truffles it's most certainly a busy time for the local's and a different experience for the handful of tourists braving cooler temperatures and potential stretches of rainy days.
November 1st marks the opening of the wild boar (cinghiale) hunting season and I, who generally don't particularly care for gamey meats, have to admit that parts of those bristly, grunting and intimidating animals make a wonderful ragu.
On our tours we take our clients to a small restaurant outside of Siena, heavily favored by the locals, that serves homemade 'Pici con Cinghiale'. Pici is a thick hand rolled pasta, like super fat spaghetti, that originates in the province of Siena and compliments the succulent wild boar perfectly. After finishing our meal I always glance around our table and notice there are never any leftovers - as a matter of fact, the last bits of sauce are wiped up with bread and flushed down with sips of the vino rosso a casa. This is often as a new culinary experience for most, and I always observe with a smile more than one satisfied rubbing of a full belly.
This is the reason Russ and I did research and found a purveyor which raises and delivers wild boar meat in the US. We ordered a shoulder and created homemade pasta and ragu with our clients at the reunion in our home. It was very tasty, but I have to admit, I did miss the scenic setting of the Tuscan Trattoria, the golden summer sun, and the local's chatting away on their lunch break. It just adds that extra touch of whimsy to a fantastic meal.
The forests in Tuscany are abuzz with activities during the late autumn months. On a leisurely stroll you may encounter the hunter - or the hunted - or local's searching for the tasty porcini mushrooms, another great ingredient which will make it’s way to the menus of the region. There is tagliatelle with porcini, risotto with porcini, meat dishes and flatbread with porcini even porcini flavored gelato. Russ isn't too crazy about mushrooms, as a matter of fact he calls them pencil erasers, so it's up to me to order those lovely flavorful,earthy dishes whenever possible.
He, on the other hand, loves truffles, yes, I know, he is a bit funny that way. And actually love is an understatement. He is like the trained dog or pig that hunts for those treasures under big old oak trees and has a keen nose when visiting a restaurant. He knows they are on the menu before he takes a look at it and without fail if it reads “con tartufo” there is no way anything but that dish will make it in front of him. We love to share those specialties of the region with our clients by taking them to our friends restaurant and have a fabulous pasta dish, ricotta mezza luna with the treasured truffles shaved over the top as part of our dinner. To quote a past client, "This is the best meal I have ever eaten!" Truffles truly are small treasures but come with a hefty price tag and the harvesting sites are well kept secrets. White truffles are more aromatic than black truffles, and a heck of a lot more expensive, but they taste delicious.
And speaking of delicious, another great harvest takes place for a couple of weeks in October and November in Tuscany and other parts of Italy. The purple saffron crocus plants produce three pistols per flower of which the stigmas are harvested and carefully dried at a temperature of about 45 degrees Celsius, which makes them lose about 80% of their body weight. It takes about 125,000 flowers to make 1 kg of saffron, appropriately named the 'red gold', since it's price per kg is actually higher than gold. Russ and I love to cook with saffron and he makes a killer Risotto Milanese. It is also lovely in some Moroccan and Indian dishes.
So if your mouth isn't watering yet with me going on about all those great food options, I simply suggest you should experience some of those amazing ingredients in the right setting.
"And where is that?", you might ask....- In Bella Toscana, of course!