Chaine Des Rotisseurs

Fabulous, wonderful, extraordinary, exciting, simply beautiful…… how does one begin to describe a very special week in Tuscany in September without falling into the common clichés of travel magazines? Well, it is not easy. It is difficult to know where to begin when recounting the experiences of nine members and their spouses of the Arkansas Chaine Des Rotisseurs at beautiful Villa Petrolo on the edge of the Chianti Hills south of Florence. Built in the sixteenth century on what was originally an Etruscan site, the villa dominates the gorgeous countryside in all directions and evokes all the grandeur of earlier times in Tuscany. The charm of the villa is enhanced by the relaxed atmosphere that Luca and Lucia San Just have provided, by allowing it to remain as it was when the family still lived there in what is now best described as aged elegance. Just steps away from the villa in the winery, Luca San Just produces one of the finest merlots in the world, according to James Suckling of the Wine Spectator. We were fortunate to arrive just as the harvest was ending. The teasing odors of fermenting grapes would occasionally waft into the gardens of the villa from the cantina across the road.
Any week in Tuscany, regardless of weather, itinerary or choice of restaurants promises to have a few highlights and memorable experiences even if by sheer accident. It would be difficult to imagine so many highlights packed into six days as this particular week encompassed.

Saturday: As the sun set across the hills of Chianti, evening dinner at the villa was prepared by the locally famous Rosi Frosonini whose family recipes included a unique starter of large fried sage leaves with anchovies and cheese, followed by the locally grown and very precious zolfini beans, and a wild boar stew with dozens of secret spices that make up the famous “stuffato alla Sangiovanese,” all served with abundant red wines of the area.

Sunday: After breakfast, guest strolled the estate lined by ancient stone walls along the winding paths between vineyards and the olive trees, occasionally stealing sinfully ripe figs as they found their way to the remains of the Templar castle on the hill above the villa. A light lunch was followed by a very memorable visit to the Charleston Enoteca (wine shop) for a wine tasting and a guide through the labyrinth of Tuscan wines with Paolo and Stefano Mearini. According to the Wine Spectator, this obscure wine shop in Arezzo “has become one of Tuscany’s top wine stores.” But the real fun is to watch Paolo Mearini’s face explode in varieties of excited and sometimes contorted expressions as he describes the special wines in his cantina. The hunt began as our group stalked the racks for the most unique, extraordinary and difficult wines to find always guided by Paolo and Stefano’s expertise.

Monday: The group began the morning with a visit to the nearby Meleto Castle outside Gaioli in Chianti. Our hostess was the Contessa Marina Dona’ Dalle Rose, whose ancestors owned the castle for centuries. The visit to Meleto was followed by a visit to her uncle’s famous estate at the Brolio Castle with a private wine tasting of the superb Castello di Brolio and Castelferro 1999 in the wine cellars. Brolio castle is an imposing fortress of the Florence State with original walls dating back to 1484. The tasting was followed by what seemed to be a step into an almost lost world of elegance and sophistication as we joined the Barone Bettino Ricasoli and his lovely wife, Baroness Costanza Ricasoli, two of the Baron’s sisters and a few family friends, for a tour of their home in the Castle and for lunch in their dining room. And what a magnificent dining room it was, refurbished in the gothic style, complete with thirty foot ceilings, fresco covered walls, stained glass windows and a table that seated twenty six. An elegant lunch was followed by the Baronesses’ own apricot and chestnut ice cream. Baron Ricasoli entertained us with some of his family’s extraordinary history, beginning with the fact that Ricasoli is perhaps the oldest wine growing estate continuously owned by a single family in the world. Records of Ricasoli winemaking date back nearly a thousand years. The Baron’s great grandfather, known as the Iron Baron, was not only a great statesman, being the second prime minister of Italy, but a scientist and enologist of some renown. It was the Iron Baron who literally invented Chianti wine after years of research and a carefully selected “formula” that governed the making of Chianti for a century and a half. But, notwithstanding the elegant setting and the sumptuous meal, it was without question the graceful hospitality and refined charm of the Baron and his family that marked this day as a day to remember. As a token of our appreciation, Bailli David Cone presented the Baron with a pin commemorating Arkansas’ Chaine chapter. With great delight, the Baron accepted this token as a memory of his new friends from Arkansas. He, in turn, presented each guest with a bottle of his Castello di Brolio as a rememberance of our day spent there.

Tuesday: On Tuesday morning we took a short train ride into Florence and were met by Laura Gensini, a professor of art history and guide extraordinaire, for a special walking tour of the city she loves. After the tour the group fanned out to explore different trattorias, osterias and restaurants followed by hours of shopping the treasures of Florence. Guests returned from a very full day in Florence ready to relax in noble style with wines and a variety of aged sheep cheeses before being served a delightful meal cooked by a few intrepid chefs from our own group. The centerpiece of the Villa’s ancient kitchen is a giant Tuscan fireplace and grill. What could be more perfect than a grilled Florentine beef steak, enormous porcini mushrooms, bruschetta with rucola, fresh olive oil from the Petrolo estate and black truffles? A rather tumultuous kitchen that evening produced a fabulous meal accompanied by several bottles of the finest Brunello di Montalcino we could find, and, what else but a rich tiramisu!
Wednesday: A free morning and light lunch at the Villa was followed by an afternoon visit to the Antinori estate of Santa Cristina in northern Chianti. Guided by the Marchesa Allegra Antinori, we visited the cantina where the super Tuscan wines, Solaia and Tignanello, are aged in oak barrels. Allegra gave us the history of the creation of their famous wines and their hopes for the future as well as her little cookbook with her favorite versions of traditional Tuscan dishes. We were later treated to a wonderful wine tasting and education on Italian wines in the 800 year old cellars of the old monastery, Badia di Passignano, conducted by wine expert Burton Anderson, (the author of Vino and numerous books and articles on Italian wines and food). Burton then joined us for dinner at Allegra’s delightful restaurant, Osteria di Passignano, built into the ancient cellars of the monastery, with its spectacular vaulted ceilings. We ate what was undoubtedly one of the finest meals of the week, a raw porcini mushroom salad with wild herbs, followed by a light polenta soup with rosemary oil and ending with duck in a wild fig sauce, all accompanied by a whole range of Antinori wines. Upon departure, Anderson gave each guest an autographed copy of his recent book.

Thursday: A morning visit to the outlet stores….yes there are outlets in Italy, namely Gucci, Prada, Armani, Dolce & Gabanna and Fendi just minutes away from the villa. And while some were shopping others were cooking with Mauro Quirini in the locally favorite Osteria Canto Del Maggio. Mauro, once featured in the Wine Spectator, brings a deep knowledge of tradition and culture to every dish he prepares but even more he brings his passion, enthusiasm and marvelous sense of humor. Mauro taught the more adventurous in the group how to make his version of “strozzaprete” or priest stranglers as it translates, a spinach ricotta dumpling served with a pecorino cheese sauce and freshly shaved black truffles. If you ever wanted to know how one large rabbit can serve eighteen people, go no further than Mauro’s kitchen. With the ingenuity of a Tuscan peasant, Chef Quirini skinned, boned, stuffed and rolled the little animal until it was ready for all to savor in a delicate herb sauce. The leisurely lunch was followed by a sinfully delicious chocolate cake and wines from Castello Brolio.
Later that evening, a candlelite dinner at the Villa was followed by Tuscan/Italian folk music and dancing. After a few glasses of wine and in the atmosphere of a Tuscan villa on a stormy night, somehow dancing the Tarantella seemed the natural thing to do!

Friday: The final day at Villa Petrolo was spent relaxing by the fireplace, savoring the week’s experience and soaking in the final moments of otherworldliness. Part of our group decided to go on a picnic and chose to tour the town of Montepulciano, a beautiful walled fortress with breathtaking vistas of the surrounding countryside. We shopped for our lunch and took it to a lovely setting by a farmhouse that produced the locally popular pecorino cheese. We found a small table covered by a canopy of wild vines for our picnic needs. Sometimes life’s simple pleasures are best, and this outdoor setting with the town of Montepulciano in the background certainly proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. Dinner that evening was a special treat. We departed for a short journey through the hills of the Pratomagno to the hidden town of Gello Biscardo (do not try finding it on the maps!) to the wonderful little osteria of La Luna nel Pozzo where chef Leone di Caprio (really!) prepared a special meal exclusively for our group. It included eight wonderful dishes all based on the freshest Adriatic fish that that chef di Caprio could find that morning. We occupied the entire osteria and listened to live music of the most delightful combination of cello and accordion accompanied by the soulful voice of Georgio Tozzini, as each dish surpassed the previous. At the end of the meal Chef Di Caprio was applauded and presented with a small token of the Chain’s visit by Bailli David Cone. But Chef Di Caprio was not to get off so easily, as many gourmands in the group insisted on knowing how certain dished were prepared. When the group could not believe the simplicity of his explanations he responded “the best things in the life are always the simplest.” And when we think about the week we will certainly remember Di Caprio’s words, after all, what could be better or simpler than, good food, good wine, good music and good friends?
How did such a week come about? As many unique experiences do, a bit of accident, a touch of good luck and a heavy dose of careful planning. Arkansas Bailli David Cone and Chevalier Frank McGehee thought a trip to Tuscany for their local bailliage, organized by Frank’s brother Scott, a professor of History and long time resident of Tuscany, would be an ideal fall event. Once the decision was made, the trip was booked by nine Chaine members and their spouses within a week. The Arkansas group left the organization of the trip to Frank’s brother Scott and his Italian colleagues, with the sole request to organize the “unique and unusual.” Scott, through his company, Toscana International, began making phone calls, and with the help of a few friends with special connections the week was planned. And what is next? Possibly a repeat week in Tuscany for those who were unable to make the first trip, or, more exciting, a similar week in Sicily--the other Italy-- to visit the great estates and private homes of the ancient Sicilian nobility. It is a world little known to foreigners but boasts one of the richest histories in the whole of Europe and we will be sure to organize an exclusive “insiders” sojourn. “Required reading for the Sicily trip,” insists our history professor, “The Leopard by Giuseppe Lampedusa,” but not to worry, there will be no exams!! Vive la Chaine!!

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