Our Tuscan Shopping List

posted by Anne & Kirk Woodyard
Music and Markets Tours

Our luggage is getting heavier and heavier after each trip, loaded with goodies. Not just terra cotta from Impruneta, leather purses and shoes from Florence, or chic accessories from the Prada outlet, but wonderful tastes of Italy that bring home the delights of our visits with each mouthful.

An embarrassing number of our Italian discoveries and enjoyments happen to be food-related! Perhaps a visit to a nearby olive oil frantoio (mill), to watch the final product develop from its initial stage as a tub of olives, leaves and all, is dumped onto an old conveyor belt heading for the press. Minutes later, in a pressing room brimming with fragrant olive essence, the liquid green-gold flows into a vat, from which the owner draws a bottle of oil just for us. What a memory to enjoy as we drizzle the oil over a salad or pasta at home! Each area insists that their oil is absolutely the best – from the fruity mild oil of Lucca, to the piquant gold of Sicily, to our favorite, the peppery fresh spring-green of Chianti.

The wineries of Italy are eager as well to share their bounty with interested travelers. Tucked into Chianti’s rolling hills lined with regiments of vineyards, rambling stone palazzos are home to the world-famous wines of Montepulciano (whose Vino Nobile was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson) Montalcino (for Brunello), and Chianti, the “big three” traditional wines of Tuscany.

Local winemakers often proudly offer a tasting of their favored vintage, with opportunity to buy a case, or a few bottles to tuck in your luggage. We like geography with our wine, and love picturing the very hills and vines that nurtured a favored bottle.

2004 Brunello, released in the fall of 2009, is a stellar vintage, and we recently picked up a few bottles to save for a special occasion. A good wine shop, or enoteca is a valuable find in Italy, worth returning to for friendly education and good buys. In Siena, we always look forward to stopping at Enoteca Palazzo Piccolomini on Via Rinaldini, a side street radiating from the lovely central piazza, the Campo. A few weeks ago, armed with Financial Times wine writer Jancis Robinson’s article recommending a few classic Brunellos, we enjoyed an enlightening chat with the knowledgeable and helpful owner, leaving with some well-priced bottles, and anticipating our next visit.

For some of us, visiting food markets is an important part of any itinerary, right up there with museums, palaces, and churches. Market touring, as we brush and bump our way through the sea of color and sounds, is one of the few ways a stranger can see real life in action and join the “regulars” as they select their dinner ingredients.

The sights, sounds and smells of markets provide an entrée to local culture, and nourishment for all the senses as well. The gold of rough-hewn rocks of Parmigiano, hams, salamis, and smooth mortadella swinging above, vast and beautiful still lifes of sensuous purple figs and gray-green artichokes, pyramids of sunny oranges, glistening fish snuggled in beds of ice, plump ravioli flecked with garden herbs… I much prefer seeing it all in person – fragrance, and often a taste, included – to an oil painting in a museum.

Surrounded by outdoor stalls stuffed with leather goods, Florentine papers, and David aprons, Florence’s temple to the tastebud, the majestic Mercato Centrale, holds a treasure house of goodies. The nineteenth century cast-iron building is one of the largest covered markets in Europe. Each time we’re in Florence, we stop by welcoming Giovanni Benevieri’s stall, near the back entry to the Mercato, to stock up on nutty golden Parmigiano Reggiano.  He vacuum-packs chunks for us, and we bring them home and savor the flavor ‘til our next trip.

Another don’t-miss stop in the Mercato is the Conti family’s stall, glistening with an array of jewel-like candied fruits, marmalades, vats, and jars. Judy Witt, of Divina Cucina in Florence, introduced us to their truffled salt during a marvelous day-long cooking class last winter. The salt, infused with truffle flakes (just open the jar and be blown away!), carries a more authentic and lasting flavor than the often-artificially-flavored truffle oils on the market.

If we aren’t able to stop at an olive oil mill, this is the place we load up with olive oil as well. They offer tastings of both olive oil and balsamic vinegar – the best way to determine exactly which vintage of vinegar or locality of oil you prefer.

A final stop at Alessandro Nannini on Borgo Lorenzo for a fierce espresso and a bag or two of deep roasted beans, and we’re ready to pack.

The bottles and jars are wrapped in socks, bubble wrap, or t-shirts, then cuddled into individual or three-pack boxes and wrapped some more to make it safely home. Now that we can’t carry on our hoard of bottles, we wrap well, so that our suitcase of wine, balsamic, and olive oil doesn’t end up as a stellar salad dressing!

Buon Appetito!

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The best way to describe us (Kirk and Anne Woodyard) is that we’re interested in the stories that make the places we visit come alive.
We’ve visited Europe more times than we can count, learned some entertaining stories there, and met some warm and helpful people who also enjoy the wonders of music and life in Europe.

Between our music-related travels, we split our time between our homes near Washington DC and the Languedoc in the south of France. We look forward to sharing these stories and friends and experiences with our Music and Markets guests.

While both of us have experience in organizing travel and music groups Kirk’s background is in project management and competitive writing, and Anne is an accomplished pianist with over thirty years of teaching experience, and a travel and food writer specializing in France and Italy.

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