Arrezzo, Brindisino, Castiglion Fiorentino, Castle Ruins, Cheese Refiner, Cheese Tasting, Chef, De’Magi, Family Lunch, Ferenc Máté, Flags, Gruppo Storico, Hospitality, Italy, Language, Medieval, Pageant, Palio, Small Toast, Smile, Tuscany, Vin Santo
Day 3 – Arrezzo and Castiglion Fiorentino
After a similar breakfast to yesterday, the group took off to Arrezzo for a look in to an award-winning cheese refinery called De’Magi. The owner, Andrea De’Magi, walked us through his caves where the cheese ages. I have never see someone so passionate about what they do. Not only does he include aging cheese, but barrels of cheese that is surrounded by different herbs, wine, and even chocolate, which soak for six to eight months. He also pointed out the cheese he saves especially for him, family, and friends, and says it is not just cheese you eat, but savor with the perfect wine, or as he described, taste the soul of the cheese. He described the cheese as his son, and it is like sharing the best part of him.
We went upstairs to begin the tasting, but first Andrea described each different kind of cheese rind, what you can eat and what you can’t, names of different parts of the cheese, how to properly cut it, and the best way to taste it. He told us that cheese making in his opinion is more difficult than making wine, as you use all your senses to determine if the cheese is ready, even your ears. He demonstrated lightly tapping the cheese to listen for any holes on the inside. He teaches a 30-hour class to aspiring chefs, and desperately wanted to share his wealth of knowledge with us.
The tasting itself was fabulous. I’ve never tasted better cheese in my life. We of course tried the regional specialty of Pecorino, a drained mozzarella in cream, several types of blue cheese accompanied by Vin Santo, a dessert wine that was to die for, and several others I can’t even describe.
After the tasting we of course need to eat lunch. We had a very special experience at a local family’s home with Fabio, his wife Rafaella, and son Manuele, where they prepared a typical Sunday family lunch (even though it is Monday). Their home was beautiful and authentic. They had sketches and paintings mix and matched everywhere, along with yellow and blue painted ceramics typical of the area. Their kitchen was wonderfully Italian, with tiles on the floor and walls, a large stove, and island in the middle for preparation.
The meal was more courses than I could count. We started off with different types of meats, bruschetta with pate and a tomato sauce, and fresh focaccia with olive oil, paired with a white wine. Next up was handmade pasta with the family’s special Ragu recipe, paired with red wine from the vineyard next door. Between each course we also raised our glass for a brindisino, meaning “small toast” in Italian, and joined in a song lead by Manuele.
Brindisino, la la la la la la, hey!
Brindisino, la la la la la la, hey!
Brindisino, la la la la la la
La la la la la la la la la la la la la la, hey!
Then Rafaella brought out cuts of pork topped with melted cheese and ham in the middle, surrounded by bacon around the outside to “keep it light,” as Pina described. Also were these amazing grilled onions soaked in red wine. Finally, we were served a gelatin chocolate dessert topped with small white and milk chocolate chips, along with a shot of Vin Santo.
The experience we had there was a very special one. They had a very welcoming presence, making us feel so welcome, even though we weren’t even speaking the same language. It is as if it is really through food and hospitality that Italians truly communicate. That and extremely expressive hand gestures. With Fabio’s deep voice, huge, warm smile, and jolly demeanor, we couldn’t help but to mimick his attitude. By the end of the meal, the spoken word lost importance. Ferenc describes a similar feeling in his book of coming upon an older man in the countryside:
“He looked up, saw us, and smiled. It wasn’t a smile of either surprise or slight embarrassment, nor the slightly hollow city smile that we had gotten used to, but a deep, heartfelt smile, full of expectation, that beguiling smile that children have, tugging at the wrapping of a present. It was a smile that we would see often in the Tuscan countryside, the smile of men and women who had grown old finding life’s greatest pleasures in the company of people: friends, family, neighbors, passersby.”
By the time we were done it was 5:00 pm, and most of us were slipping into a food coma. We still had on the itinerary to travel to Castiglion Fiorintino city center, another medieval city. It was beautiful, with huge wooden doors as the entrance to the city. Here they also have a similar race as the Palio in Siena, where there are three neighborhoods, two horses each, who compete. The village is amazing, with its narrow cobbled streets, ancient doors to mysterious places, and beautiful castle ruins that overlooked the amazing valley below, and in our case as the sun was breaking through rainclouds. As we were taking pictures of the view, Gruppo Storico, a local pageant group, came out in traditional garb with trumpets, drums, and flags, and put on a show as if it were medieval times. You couldn’t help but to love it. And a surprise was that Manuele was a flag (twirler? Artist? Master?) himself! We later found out that the group (we saw only a portion, about 20, usually there are 75 or so people) travels all around the world to perform in festivals.
We meandered our way back to the van to head home for dinner, which we were all praying was light. Some of us drifted off into our coma on the way home, and woke up just in time to eat an amazing zucchini dish and salad.