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Monday, 23 March, 2015, 15 : 00 PM [IST]

International Focus: Tuscan Flavours

Italy, for Amala & Carl Dantas is a captivating destination, and one they keep visiting. Their latest sojourn was an 11-day 'foodie' trip in Tuscany to discover the gastronomic delights and wines. They recount their experiences of cooking classes and tasting sessions, and their journey through the scenic landscape of Tuscany dotted with medieval villages and Florence, celebrated for its art and heritage and known as the Cradle of Renaissance
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Italy is a highly popular and among the most visited destinations in Europe by Indian tourists but there are some hidden jewels yet to be explored by the Indian traveller. We chose the countryside of Tuscany for our 11-day sojourn in September last year. We landed at Florence airport which is the international gateway for Tuscany. The first destination on our exploration of Tuscany was the medieval village of Il Borro in the Arrezo district, located 60 kms South East of Florence and hour and half drive away. Instead of a self-drive we booked private transfers, a more relaxing way to enjoy the drive and also the countryside.

We spend four wonderful days in this charming and beautiful medieval village of Il Borro staying at the Il Borro- Relais & Chateau property belonging to the Ferragamo family. Ferruccio Ferragamo bought this 700 acres estate in 1993, surrounded by vineyards, cypress trees and hills. There is a variety of accommodation to choose from, 19th Century Villas, variety of medieval buildings with apartments ranging from Classic Suites to Deluxe Suites each with a lovely name. On arrival we were greeted by Anthony Vallen, Director Sales &Marketing of this beautiful property. We were allocated a lovely deluxe suite called Granaio built in terra cotta and wood, having original stone walls in the bathroom on the ground floor of a traditional building, beautifully restored and designed with all the modern amenities inside without compromising on its originality and going back in time.

tuscan_flavours_2.jpgOn the first two days we immersed ourselves in the ancient medieval village of Il Borro enjoying its natural beauty and landscape. We did a private cooking class with Chef Andrea Campani and his assistant, Selene Goretti, learnt about flavours and traditions of Tuscan cooking at their gourmet restaurant Osteria del Borro. We learnt the traditional “Papa Pomodore”- fresh tomato Tuscan soup followed by “Devilled Chicken/Chicken in Hell,” “Gnochi” and lastly the Tiramisu. Our lunch was what we had cooked, paired with excellent Il Borro wines.  After lunch we had a guided tour of the massive cellar of Il Borro to discover their wines by tasting both whites and reds–Toscana 2010, Polissena 2010, Pian Di Nova 2011, Lamelle Il Borro 2012, which were all of excellent quality. The tour ended in their shop where one can buy their wines and Il Borro olive oil.

tuscan_flavours_3.jpgIl Borro has a peaceful and harmonious environment where one can enjoy walks down the narrow streets of the medieval village or relax at the infinity pool. Breakfast is served in the Vincafé and a light lunch in the afternoon. In the evenings the Vincafe converts into a bar serving light snacks (open till 8 pm). Dinner is a gourmet experience in the candle lit restaurant at the Osteria del Borro. The property also houses an excellent spa, “La Corte” where we experienced a mind blowing wine treatment. On the third day we set out for a full-day excursion to Montepulciano, which stands high atop a hill in Southern Tuscany. The private tour was organised by the DMC, ‘My Luxury Drive’ who sent their limo with a driver cum guide.

tuscan_flavours_4.jpgMontepulciano is a medieval town of rare beauty, famous for its two excellent wines, the Vino Nobile and the Rosso di Montepulciano. A visit to this town is highly recommended while you are in Tuscany, as the town has an elegant Renaissance palace, ancient churches, charming squares and architectural wonders. It overlooks the Southern Tuscan countryside of vineyards and olive groves. Surrounded by the valleys of Val d'Orcia and Val di Chiana, Montepulciano located in South East of Siena province is only a hour and half drive from Il Borro and is best explored on foot. We chose to be dropped off at the top as it’s easier to walk downhill.

tuscan_flavours_5.jpgWe first visited the upper part of the town: the main square Piazza Grande, typical of renaissance period and then explored the historical Ricci cellar, in the lower part of Ricci palace, where we did the wine tasting of the Noble of Montepulciano red wine. We browsed through the streets lined with artisan shops and quaint cafes as we walked downhill. We arrived in the lower part of the town and drove a short distance to see the beautiful Renaissance San Biagio Temple. Our second stop for the day was the village of Pienza, short drive from Montepulciano. As we walked the streets our first halt was at a famous cheese shop where we tasted the fresh pecorino cheese. Later, we crossed the historical centre, past the renaissance Pius II square from where we followed the panoramic road to enjoy one of the best views of Valdorcia area. We lunched in a typical Tuscan restaurant to taste the local “pici,” a typical handmade pasta. After lunch we drove to the famous Prada outlet, which is only just 25 minutes from Il Borro.

tuscan_flavours_6.jpgOn our last day the icing on the cake was meeting Salvatore Ferragamo Jr, the man responsible for developing Il Borro, nurturing the property with loving care and involving himself not only in their vineyards, olive groves and the medieval village, but also in the development of renewable energy. “The Borro is an act of faith that has been repeated in time!  This beautiful medieval village that was bought by my family in May of 1993 has been completely restored and brought back to its original beauty.  Today, after 21 years the property has been transformed into a hotel as a Relais Chateaux and as one of Tuscany's leading quality wine producer. Our philosophy has been a faithful recovery of the property to its original Tuscan charm and character while at the same time providing all the modern convenience a guest needs.  The property has also become 100 per cent organic in farming, as well as being a zero carbon foot print, thanks to the development of renewable energy on the property through solar energy, geothermal, and biomass.  I feel the Borro is a truly unique and authentic Tuscan estate,” stated Ferragamo Jr.  summing up Il Borro.

tuscan_flavours_7a.jpgAfter our wonderful four days in Il Borro, our next destination was the enchanting Villa Campestri Olive Oil Spa & Resort, located in the heart of the Mugello Valley, 35 kms. North East of Florence. The journey took us a little over two hours from Il Borro.  Villa Campestri is six kms from the town of Vicchio. It is a magnificent Renaissance 13th Century villa that stands on a hill overlooking the Mugello Valley surrounded by ancient olive groves, park and centuries old trees. The Villa is completely restored by the current owner, Paolo Pasquali who bought it in 1989, keeping its original spacious rooms decorated with frescoes having all the modern comforts of a luxurious resort. 

The Villa is charming, chic, elegant and yet very homely, decorated lovingly with wonderful art and classic antique furniture. The rooms at the resort are elegantly furnished and some overlook the gardens offering panoramic views of the valley. Rooms are located either in the main Villa, which has two floors, or in the adjoining farm house or in the house in front of the Villa. It exudes the warmth of a home where personal attention from the owners and staff is seen in abundance. The swimming pool is located in the garden below with a panoramic view. One can enjoy long walks in their spacious gardens and sprawling lawns soaking in the warm peaceful atmosphere. The terrace outside the restaurant overlooks the beautiful landscape of the park where one can enjoy breakfast or lunch. This is a place to relax, breathe fresh country air, partake in the excellent Tuscan food, wine and olive oil, a rare combination of history, tradition, beauty and nature – all the ingredients to make a perfect holiday. There is also free Wi-Fi access in all common areas.

tuscan_flavours_8.jpgTheir restaurant is one of the famous ones in the area that serves typical Tuscan cuisine cooked by their young Chef Andrea Perini and boasts delicious food that is home cooked using fresh herbs and vegetables from their kitchen garden, with a menu that changes every evening. The highlight of the restaurant is the extra virgin olive oil produced by the Villa’s ancient olive groves. They also have an excellent selection of wines from that area. Restaurant serves light meals for lunch and dinners are more elaborate and formal with a touch of elegance and charm.

The highlight of our stay here was the Olive Oil tasting and our three Tuscan Cooking Classes with Chef Cristian Borchi. Our Olive Oil tasting tour conducted by the daughter of the house started by visiting the Olive Oil orchards, where we were given a brief history on the growing process of the olive fruit, then we visited the ancient olive press, where the oil is extracted through different stages, followed by the tasting process in the cellar, where the oil is stored in huge jars. There we sat down to the tasting process of three different kinds of extra virgin olive oils. The tasting is similar to wine tasting, difference being; tasting is done with the back of your mouth by sucking the olive oil when you take a sip. Pure Virgin Olive Oil tastes rather pungent and has a very strong peppery flavour, with a slight bitterness to it. Their aim is to bring as much awareness to the quality and freshness of olive oil and have patented the system ‘Olive To Live’ extra virgin olive oil server for preservation of olive oil and its organic properties. This was our first experience of olive oil tasting and we learnt a lot about olives and olive oil tasting.

Our three cooking classes were truly spectacular, as we learnt to cook in true Tuscan country style fish, meats and sauces. We thoroughly enjoyed learning from Chef Cristian Borchi, who is an excellent Chef. He taught in a simple way and made cooking a fun and enjoyable experience. We cooked with fresh herbs from the kitchen garden. He runs two successful restaurants in the village of Mugello and its vicinity. The cooking courses started in the morning at 9:30 lasting for three hours and lunch comprised a small portion of what we cooked, well presented by Chef Andrea Perini.

tuscan_flavours_9.jpgAfter our relaxing and wonderful stay in Villa Campestri we went to Florence, only half hour drive depending on the traffic. Our stay here was in the luxury “Art Hotel” of the Lungarno Collection under the Ferragamo umbrella. Well located, close to the Ponte Vechio and walking distance to all the major sights. We were given a beautiful Suite with a terrace on either side which presented a great view of Florence. The hotel served a great buffet breakfast on the ground floor, rooms were luxurious, well appointed and had all the modern facilities. Service was warm and personal. The property has a nice bar with great snacks. The Group has four hotels in Florence, the oldest and the most luxurious one being Hotel Lungarno recently refurbished, Hotel Portrait, Art Hotel and Hotel Continentale. They also have the Lungarno Apartments. All the properties overlook the Arno River except Hotel Art, which is a few steps from the river. We were taken around by their petite and charming Director of Sales, Caroline Courteau, who also treated us to an exquisite dinner at The Potrait Hotel.

We did two walking tours with the tour company, Florence Town. One being half day walking tour of the Vesari Corridor and the other called the Inferno Tour, which was made famous after Dan Brown’s book, “The Inferno.” This corridor extends from the Uffizi Galeries over the Ponte Vechio Bridge to the other side of the river and ends in the Pitti Palace. The guides are superb and both the tours were extremely good. Highly recommended as all the major sights are covered except the statue of David in The Academia Museum. Florence Town, are one of the few that are able to take you into the Vesari Corridor and other hidden gems. Apart from the historical, art and architecture aspect, Florence is great for shopping, food and wine. Pisa, Sienna and the surrounding Tuscan countryside is close by and can be conveniently explored.
 
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