The fox emerged from the olive
groves, crossed the outdoor terrace and slowly walked through the
open door into the dining room where I was hosting my group's
arrival dinner just four nights ago.
We were staying in
a series of restored Tuscan farmhouses on the Antonori family wine
estate. The fox wasn't on the itinerary. Our Italian hosts
immediately walked up and fed him some rather good pappardelle with
a bit of rabbit sauce. He took what he could, looked us over and
preceded to walk back out to the terrace to sit in his regular spot
to finish his snack. It turns out that he makes an appearance just
about every night at 10:05.
He dined alone
while the restaurant cat stared him down from a safe distance. They
had learned to coexist.
The client sitting
next to me wondered if "an animal will be joining us at all of our
ago, I was summoned before a board and informed that I had been
granted a sum of money to launch a school in Europe. I began my
planning in the south of France, but karma and cost soon brought me
to the Tuscan hills. I lived in a large villa for six years, with
the company of my teaching staff and 75 or so high school seniors
from the U.S.
Time passed, and
some 20 years ago I figured out a way to return to the neighborhood
on a regular basis. The result was a corporate division dedicated
to Culinary and Lifestyle tours of Italy.
Yesterday we went
to the walled town of San Gimignano. The wonderful thing about the
views out of the windows at the restaurant La Cisterna is that
nothing has changed. No chain stores or little box housing
developments dot the magnificent hillsides.
And that is really
what makes so much of Europe, and particularly Italy, so wonderful.
From the first time you see it and fall in love, you can sleep
secure in the knowledge that when you return, years later, it will
not have changed.
The red rooftops of
any new homes in the villages must conform to antiquity; only seven
primary Tuscan colors are approved for painting the stone
It was market day.
I wandered through the belts and the bras and the socks toward the
back of the stall area. I was looking for someone. He was there,
standing in his open truck, swatting away a few bees. And as I
approached, he noticed me but did not remember.
He reached down and
ever so delicately sliced a piece off the whole roasted pig that
lay on the wood slab before him. Flavored with fennel, rosemary and
sage, the roast pork panini sandwich brought back a flood of
I had last bought a
sandwich from him in 1971.
On Sunday, we took
our group off to tour the home of Machiavelli in San
Caasciano. We walked across the road to
dine on a "light" lunch of real Tuscan bruschetta (topped with
chicken liver pate, not tomatoes), olive oil marinated roasted
chicken and grilled Florentine steaks.
Later we drove to
Impruneta, where we entered the small, clay-covered workshop of
Mario Belli. He is not very used to guests, but he explained his
craft through our interpreter and decorated and shaped glassware on
an ancient potters wheel in front of our eyes.
He has been in this
workspace, doing this work for 52 years. There are no apprentices
to be found. The work is too delicate, the workspace too primitive
to attract the young.
Last night, we went
to a small hamlet high in the hills not far from Radda in Chianti.
Sixty-three folks live in this village, among them a mother and
daughter known throughout the region for their traditional cooking
skills. The hamlet has two businesses, a bar/restaurant and a
rather excellent small wine and olive oil shop specializing in the
excellent local products.
I kept staring at
the group of mature villagers -- none, I was told, under 80 -- who
were laughing and recounting the events of the day, no doubt
speculating a bit about our group of 24 people.
They laughed, they
poked fun at one another, and they glowed in the approaching
twilight with that special look reserved for the deeply
The cook and her
mother taught us how to cook while adding several liters of fine
red wine to nearly every dish. Then, under a canopy of stars,
sitting on a terrace overlooking the hamlet's vineyards, the lights
of small villas visible in the distance, the residents of this
village presented plate upon plate of their own dishes, the food
they enjoy in their own homes.
As we hugged the
villager's good night and I saw tears in the eyes of some of my
friends here, I remembered, once again, that travel ought to be, in
its truest sense, a search for authenticity.
Editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen Ltd., a vacation
planning firm, and has been named to Conde Nast's list of The
World's Best Travel Specialists since the list