I keep thinking of all my Tuscan friends, hunkered down in their farmhouses while waiting out the coronavirus. At least they’re well-fed.
Because of the coronavirus, Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the next few weeks (and likely longer). But travel dreams are immune to any virus. During these challenging times, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my very favorite travel dreams-come-true…a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe on the other end of this crisis.
I checked into the farmhouse inn on the Gori family estate. This is Tuscany in the rough: a working farm, not a resort…no TV, no swimming pool, lots of real culture. My host, Signora Gori, is both old-money elegant and farmhouse tough. After I settle in, she takes me on a welcome stroll.
Our first stop is a sty dominated by a giant pig. “We call him Pastanetto — the little pastry,” Signora Gori says. While the scene through my camera’s viewfinder is pristine and tranquil, the soundtrack is not. After a horrendous chorus of squeals, she says, “That is our little Beirut.”
Hiking to the rustic slaughterhouse, we enter a room dominated by a stainless-steel table piled with red sides of pork.
“Here begins prosciutto,” Signora Gori says. Burly men in aprons squeeze the blood out of hunks of meat the size of dance partners. Then they cake the ham hocks in salt to begin the curing process, which takes months. While the salt help cure the meat, a coating of pepper seals it.
In another room are towering racks of aging ham hocks. A man in a white coat tests each ham by sticking it with a bone needle and giving it a sniff. It smells heavenly.
Back outside, Signora Gori takes me into the next barn, where fluffy white lambs jump to attention, kicking up a sweet-smelling golden dust from beds of hay. Backlit by stray sunbeams, it’s a dreamy, almost biblical scene. Picking up a baby lamb and giving it an Eskimo kiss, she explains, “We use unpasteurized milk in making the pecorino cheese. This is allowed, but with strict health safeguards. I must really know my sheep.”
This close-to-the-land-and-animals food production is part of Italy’s Slow Food movement. Believing there’s more to life than increasing profits and speeding up production people like the Gori family have committed to making and serving food in the time-honored way. It may be more labor-intensive and more expensive, but it’s tastier. Because Italian foodies are happy to pay higher prices for higher quality, it’s also good business.
Tuscany is trendy. Enticed by books like Under the Tuscan Sun, a persistent parade of visitors are hell-bent on sampling the Tuscan good life — and its prosciutto. The nearby town of Greve is happy to oblige. It’s a facade of Tuscan clichés, with enough parking and toilets to handle all the tour buses, as well as a vast prosciutto emporium, with boastful newspaper clippings on its door and samples kept under glass. My stroll on the Gori farm reminds me how, especially here, it’s critical to venture off the tourist track.
Walking down another lane, we observe the family’s team of vintners. Signora Gori’s brother empties a bucketful of purple grapes from a dump truck into a grinder, which munches through the bunches, spit- ting stems one way and juice with mangled grapes the other. Following pipes of this juice into a cellar, Signor Gori explains that winemaking is labor-intensive, “but right now, the grapes are doing most of the work.”
As the new grapes ferment, we taste the finished product. A key word from my Tuscan travels is corposo — full-bodied. Lifting the elegant glass to my lips, I sip the wine while enjoying the pride in the eyes of those who made it. Satisfied, I say, “Corposo.”
“Si, bello,” they reply.
That night at dinner, we’re joined by the rest of the Gori family. The two sons dress and act like princes home on break from some Italian Oxford. We sit down to a classic Tuscan table, focused on simplicity, a sense of harmony, and the natural passage of time necessary for a good meal…each of us with a glass of good red wine. Dipping my bread in extra-virgin olive oil and savoring each slice of prosciutto, it’s clear: Great wine goes best with simple food. I nod to my hosts, appreciating that I’m experiencing the true art of Tuscan cuisine.
Full and content, we sip port and enjoy a game of backgammon on a board that has provided after-dinner fun for 200 years in this very room. Surrounded by musty portraits that put faces on this family’s long lineage, alongside a few guns used in Italy’s 19th-century fight for independence, I realize this evening — so special for me — is just another night on the farm for the Gori family.
Corposo. That’s how I like my wine…and my Tuscan travels.
This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting some of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. Click here to preorder. )
(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order.)