Tobacco? Smoking? Well, yes, responsible smoking. Nothing promiscuous, please. If you drink fine wine to enhance a meal, you’ll understand: this tour is about connoisseurship. It’s also about Tuscan history, cultural traditions, craftsmanship, and the many sublime products of Tuscany.
Even though I don’t smoke, designing this new tour has been fascinating. All the people I take you to visit on my tours are Italian, but this is the first time an Italian has helped me with the creation of a tour. Antonella Giusti works for the Tuscan tourist bureau and is a member of Slow Food and of the Congrega dei Fumatori Indipendenti, the Society of Independent Smokers. (The word ‘congrega’ is also used for a coven of witches, and perhaps that’s why I’m bewitched by the tour.)
At Lucca we have the only remaining manufacturer of the Toscano cigar in Tuscany (there’s one other in Campania) and the only one in Europe that produces hand-rolled cigars. Spurred by my insatiable curiosity, I went for a tour of the new factory in 2006, shortly after it had moved out of the historic centre of Lucca. The sigaraie, women who roll cigars (yes, it’s always women; men try but never stay the course), were interesting, but the machines that make them were totally mesmerising. I’ve offered the tour as part of my day tours ever since.
It was Antonella who took me to the story behind the scenes, a story with so many chapters that it will take ten days to cover all of them. Tuscany is one of the regions of Italy most visited by foreign tourists, and yet there remains so much territory unexplored, even by Italians themselves.
We start at Roberta’s tobacco farm near Sansepolcro in the province of Arezzo at harvest time. In 1574 Bishop Nicolò Tornabuoni, the Medici’s ambassador to France, sent some tobacco seeds to his uncle Alfonso, the bishop of Sansepolcro, who had his gardener cultivate them. Roberta carries forward the centuries-old tradition which you take part in as you follow the giant leaves from the field to the drying building where they cure over a smouldering fire, the beginning of the process that converts tobacco to cigars. Later in the day we visit the Tobacco Museum at San Giustino and go to dinner with the museum director who leads you in the first of six guided Toscano tastings on the tour.
We have four nights here which gives you time to get to know the area better. Sansepolcro lies on the Tuscan border with Umbria, on which hinges the birth of the virtually unknown Free Republic of Cospaia. In 1441, by an error on the part of the negotiators of a treaty between the Pope and the Republic of Florence, a sliver of land was left belonging to neither. The residents, realising the potential for free trade, immediately declared themselves independent. For four centuries until 1826 they flourished without any government or laws.
Tobacco was one of the most profitable contraband goods, and we join in the annual commemorative walk along an old smugglers’ route to a festive lunch. Roberta will be there rolling cigars and will be happy to teach you the craft.
A much better known fact about Sansepolcro is that it was the birthplace of the early Renaissance master Piero della Francesca, several of whose frescoes we see there, as well as the ‘Legend of the True Cross’ at Arezzo on our way to our appointment with a colossal white cow, the Chianina, a heritage breed from the Valdichiana.
We stop at an estate enclosed in a time capsule where the last peasant farmer of the mezzadria system died only five years ago. His house is preserved so we can get a flavour of how his family lived and worked.
The main flavour we’re after, however, is the Chianina beef, which we sample raw, grilled and braised.
It was a bit tricky finding a white cow that wasn’t reared with a chain around its neck, but finding the black rooster of Chianti Classico is simple. The hard part is figuring out which one to choose, and we’re still on the case. This month we’ll be visiting five family vineyards to try to decide which one to take you to. Such hardships we endure for your sake!
By sheer good luck we’ll be passing San Miniato at the very beginning of the white truffle season. My truffle hunter Riccardo and his truffle hound Turbo take you on an authentic hunt (no planted truffles) and then back to his home for a truffle feast and guided cigar tasting with his delicious homemade vin santo, the classic Tuscan sweet wine.
Another difficult decision on this tour of Tuscan excellence was whether to include Leonardo da Vinci or Brunelleschi. Since Leonardo’s birthplace of Vinci has a pretty good marketing machine, I chose Brunelleschi’s castle at Vicopisano, which almost no one has heard of. Giovanni conducts you on an enthralling tour from the dungeons to the tippy top of the tower, from where, if you’re flamboyant like Giovanni, you can signal to the surrounding countryside that the enemies from Lucca are arriving. They’re us and that’s where we’re heading next, to the cigar factory in the territory of Puccini.
The tour of the cigar factory forms the centrepiece of your four-night stay in the historic centre of Lucca, but there are lots of other goodies planned. This is Antonella’s home town and she guides you to her favourite places from Roman times to Puccini’s at the turn of the last century. We dine on an organic olive estate; we visit a micro-brewery for a beer and cigar tasting; and we cruise on the lake where Puccini was apprehended for poaching water fowl (his publisher hoped he’d be sent to prison so he’d have more time to write his operas).
Antonella and I are still arguing about whether to visit another vineyard or an experimental tea plantation in the village of the olive estate (we don’t have time for both). I thought the wine tasting was a no-brainer, but she’s beginning to convince me that the combination of cigars and tea is very revealing and not something most cigar aficionados will have tried. We’d sit in the shade of a covered veranda for our tasting before strolling over to the olive estate for dinner. Sounds pretty enticing. I may change the tour description this afternoon. If you have any views, let me know soon.
The tour premieres from 28 August to 7 September this year, and repeats next year from 26 August to 3 September 2016. You’ll find all the details at http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/tuscan-cigar/ (click on the tabs below the introductory paragraph). There are only ten places on each tour, so if you’d like to book, contact me soon (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.