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CHARLENE PETERS: Taste of fine Italian food and drink

By Herald Express  |  Posted: March 28, 2013

  • Tasting: Schenk Italia in Bolzano and, left, dinner Ristorante Da Nello Al Montegrappa, Bologna, where a waiter, dressed in an iconic Italian-waiter's vest, smiles and sets the stage for a great meal Charlene Peters

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INDULGENCE beckons and with every lick, the soft spice of cinnamon kindled with fresh cream sends my senses swirling.

I am standing in the heart of Florence, in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, savouring my scoop of gelato — a proper introduction to my culinary tour through Italy. Italy's various regions are known to rival each other for the best language, best food and best wine.

So here, on this food and wine tour titled 'Wine, Food and Life: Italians Do it Better', I am happy to investigate.

In Tuscany's capital, I pass the Duomo, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (St Mary of the Flower), where the one-handed liturgical clock shows the 24-hours of the hora italica, a period of time ending with sunset at 24 hours.

This timetable was used until the 18th century and continues in working order.

History is at every turn. A stroll away is where the church of Italian poet of the Middle Ages, Dante, married, and where this father of Italian language lived as part of the middle class.

The Piazza della Signoria is where a 17ft tall, five ton David statue stands, created by then 26-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti, who spent three years creating the famous sculpture of Florence's biblical hero.

During dinner at Il Cibreo, I sip DaVinci pinot grigio and indulge in polenta of soft, lightly creamed texture, served with a well of olive oil on top to complement its richness — all topped with an excessive amount of Parmesan cheese shavings, adding a smoky flavour.

Paired with a 2010 Roso di Montalcino, with its solid structure and palatable finesse, the ambiance and polenta dish set the stage for a euphoric culinary experience, ending with chicken ricotta meatballs and a glass of 2007 Brunello di Montalcino.

The rolling hills of Montalcino lead to the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo (St Antimo Abbey) and its surrounding vineyards.

The sense of history is felt through scenes of large olive trees aged up to 1,000 years old, a fig tree and a pomegranate tree in the distance.

Innumerable rows of vines hold heavy bunches of deep blue, delicate sangiovese grapes that shine brilliant as the sun breaks through.

I pluck a few grapes that will eventually be used to make Brunello di Montalcino, one of the best wines in the world.

"Winemaking is a philosophy," says Barbara Widmer, proprietor and winemaker at Casa Brancaia in Radda, Chianti. I stand in awe of the micro-climates that reign over the hillsides which spawn within the estate, and where some of the best Tuscan wines are made possible.

The barrel room at Casa Brancaia is where a 2010 Brancaia Ilatraia was crafted and subsequently awarded a Wine Spectator rating of 94 points and ranked number 10 in Wine Spectator's Top 100 wine list for 2012.

A taste of 2007 Chianti Classico, made with 80 per cent sangiovese and 20 per cent merlot and 16 months in the barrique is quite sublime.

Wine advocate Robert Parker gave this wine 93 points and, in 2009, it ranked number nine in the Top 100 wines of the world.

If spaghetti bolognese is on the menu, it's not an authentic Italian restaurant. Italians prefer it with tagliatelle, lasagne or papardelle pasta.

Bolognese is not all Bologna is famous for — there is also its mortadella (sausage), 18th-century-made Milani chocolate, and the Carpigiani Gelato Museum, billed as 'the best place' to enjoy quality gelato.

A walking tour past the Galleria Vera Bologna is where designer shops are lined up along marble streets that lead to a bustling city traffic scene.

Women race by on Vespas, swerving around corners and almost running over our toes. A stop in one of several shops reveals prosciutto hanging from the ceilings, and mortadella, the finely hashed pork sausage of Italy, on sale where it originated.

Heading north to Verona is where the setting of Shakespeare's tragedy of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet was born and where the balcony of Juliet attracts an overwhelming amount of tourists and graffiti artists.

Climb on the statue and place your left hand on Juliet's right breast and it is said you will have luck in love.

Dinner at Trattoria Al Pompiere begins with a glass of La Marca Prosecco, paired with thinly sliced finocchiona, mortadella, prosciutto and pancetta.

A plate of finferli mushrooms mixed with noodles is served with a pairing of Amarone della Valpolicella, a rich, Italian dry red wine crafted in a unique process.

When the grapes are harvested, a portion is placed on nets for up to three months in a process called appassimento (to dry and shrivel).

River Adige is my passenger as I head through the Trentino region, a cooler climate in Italy, where vineyards lie among the hillsides in soil rich in dolomite limestone, and where there are 700 castles.

Schenk Italia is located in Bolzano, where I taste blended grapes from various vineyards, beginning with a Bella Sera Pinot Grigio IGT Veneto 2011.

The taste is fruit forward with a moderate acidity from grapes grown exclusively from hillside soil.

Next, a 2011 Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio IGT Venezie offers a full nose, lots of character and a long finish. This one has a high acidity and would pair quite well with spicy foods and oysters.

Within the amphitheatre of vineyards in the hills north of Treviso, homes are made of stucco and stone with Austrian-influenced wood-shuttered doors, and the white glera grape, formerly known as prosecco, named after a tiny village near Trieste, is harvested.

This golden, green-tinted jewel with a taste so 'perfetto' is a grape varietal that spans nine provinces across the Veneto and Friuli regions, areas used to making sparkling Italian white wine we know as spumante or Prosecco.

My final evening in Italy leaves me heartbroken with thoughts of a glorious time nearing an end.

A waterbus to Venice takes me to Piazza San Marco for a tour, but a sudden fever for fashion takes over my senses.

Quietly, I remove myself and dart through alleys, over footbridges along the canals, poking my head in shop after shop before heading to the Rialto Bridge to meet up with my group.

Our last supper is enjoyed at Osteria Da Fiore, a posh spot where we fill up on wine, several courses of fish, including teeny tiny whole shrimps, and then back to Piazza San Marco for a champagne cocktail and bask in the ambiance of a nearby orchestral performance.

Alas, it is time to say 'ciao' to Italy, a destination that has proven to me that within each region, Italians really do do food, wine and life much better than any other culture I've had the pleasure to visit.

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