To the Wall in Tuscano – Pecorino, Grappa, Brunello and Tartufi

FYI – This blog gets better with each highlight of the day…

Today was a good day. Actually, that’s quite the understatement. Not only did I have the best salami of my life in its hometown of Siena, in the Tuscan countryside, but also Pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk) in Pienza, home of Pecorino.

My brother, Jon, and I enjoying Pecorino and the best salami we've ever had, in Pienza, Tuscano.
My brother, Jon, and I enjoying Pecorino and the best salami we’ve ever had, in Pienza, Tuscano. (photo cred: mama)

Cassanova di Neri vineyard, Tuscano

Next stop, Casanova di Neri produces the best Brunello (a clone of Sangiovese, one of my favorite wines) in all of Italy. They’ve earned top honors the past two years in a row. Of course, we brought a bottle of our favorite home with us. Well, Jon and I are hopeful but mom may save it for a special occasion. What could be more special than a trip to Italy with your two sons? Huh, mom? I know you’re reading this…

Cassanova di Neri wine tasting, Tuscano
Casanova di Neri wine tasting, Tuscano

Since they make their own olive oil and it’s currently olive season, might as well grab a bottle of that too, right?

In the past three weeks I’ve tried grappa in several different regions. In Cadore of Il Dolomiti, Venezia, Padua, and Firenza. For those who don’t know, grappa is basically pure alcohol distilled with grapes. To enhance flavor, the distiller adds whatever flavor they desire – lemon, pine, eucalyptus, etc. It’s definitely not a taste for everyone, but I’ve had a few I’ve enjoyed (mildly).

making grappa in italy
Vaporizing grapes to make grappa. They weren’t even open and we still got a private tour!

Until last night, when the owner of a small ristorante in the town of Muntepulciano poured me the best grappa I’ve had yet. I asked him if it was local and if I could find it locally, and he responded by scribbling the distiller’s name on a business card. Today, we found it. They go by Bonollo, and as it turns out they’re regarded as the best Grappa distillers in the world.

Bonollo grappa distillery, Italy
Learning and tasting at the Bollono grappa distillery in Tuscano

When we arrived, they were closed. But anyone who knows me knows that wouldn’t suffice. Brodericks don’t go half-ass. The gate to the back of the production warehouse opened to let a delivery truck through and I snuck through the back door…right into the laboratory. I introduced myself to the men in lab coats in the best Italiano I could muster in my nervous state, and they were surprisingly welcoming. They brought forth Gabriela, who spoke decent English, and he agreed to let us in for a tasting. After sampling three flavors, I purchased two bottles of their Reserve blend. 50% alcohol content, the thickest bottle (to avoid shattering during transport, and the best flavor I’ve had in all of Italy.

I’m bringing some back to a good friend in California who, when I told him I was headed to Italy, poured me my first taste. Andrew, I’ll need your address…again! Now I can return to the States with the best grappa in all of Italy – according to my personal taste as well as the proprietor of the restaurant where my brother had one of the best steaks of his life (49 euro for 1.7 kilograms) . If you ever have the chance to visit Siena, I steongly suggest Osteria Acquacheta in Montepulciano. Family-style seating, meaning next to whoever happens to walk in next, and phenomenal service, in English.

The proprietor of Osteria Acquacheta chops up bistecca fiorentina.
The proprietor of Osteria Acquacheta chops up bistecca fiorentina.

Here comes the grand finale…

Who likes truffles?! Truffle shavings and/or truffle oil? Chefs and food connoisseurs, this one’s for you:

San Giovasse D’Asso is home of Tartufo Bianco, the white truffle. To say we ended the day with a bang! would not do this adventure justice. We began our hunt in the center of town. The local market was closed, as many establishments are between 14:00 and 17:00 in Italy for a daily siesta (nap), errands, etc. I approached an approachable looking lady in the parking lot who explained the two spots she could think of where we may be able to find tartufi (truffles, plural) this late in the season. 1) the ‘Truffle Associaton’ may have an idea, and 2) there’s a farm located at the top of a hill, lined by a white pebble road. It was up to us to give it a shot. And so we set off.

San Giovasse D'Asso, home of the white truffle.
San Giovasse D’Asso, home of the white truffle. Sorry it’s so sloppy. I took this shot from a moving car. But what a beautiful city!

Associazion Tartufai Senesi was closed. Bummer. Time to attempt to find the random farm in the middle of nowhere. After a short drive, we found a farm. Doubtful it was the one my new approachable friend mentioned, we pushed our little rental car up the road anyway. Why not? The beautiful Tuscan countryside doesn’t exactly say, “Avoid exploring this magnificent countryside.” The farm was full of goats and standoff-ish guard dogs, but no people. Just before we decided to give up on our hunt and head back to Montepulciano, a car arrived on the horizon. We watched and waited a couple minutes until it eventually made its way ass up the long, winding driveway, kicking up dust behind it. I became a bit nervous. Just a bit. There was a pretty decent chance they would shoot us. In my mind, at least. Then again, anything and everything tends to go through my mind…pretty much all the time. After all, we’re dead giveaways as ‘turistas’ and we were most definitely trespassing. I waited in the driveway. As they neared and I caught a glimpse through their windshield, my nerves eased  A man exited the front seat. He didn’t speak a lick of English.

tartufo farm, San Giovasse D'Asso
I send a hand signal to mom and Jon that they should secretly take a photo. Mom was already on it.

After a short conversation consisting of multiple apologies for trespassing and explaining our ‘truffle hunt’ in very basic Italiano, he coughed up a phone number. “Helen parla Inglese,” he said.20141023_164604

Wow! We couldn’t believe it actually worked. Now we had to drive back into town and find a phone to call Helen.

Helen wanted 1030 euro for 1 kilogram. No way! Sure, truffles are super expensive, but we had higher hopes of finding a better deal and after all this work we weren’t ready to stop now. Surely we could find some for much cheaper than that, especially if we found a good local connection. By now, Associazion Tartufai Seneoi had reopened in the center of the itty-bitty city of San Giovasse D’Asso, so Jon and I popped our heads in the door while mom waited outside in the car. The man sitting behind the desk inside didn’t speak English either, but we were still able to convey our message. “Cerco tartufi!” Translation: I’m looking for truffles! He explained that there were no more truffles available anywhere in the city until Saturday. We’d be in Rome by then, so we tried again. A sample? Anything? Surely the Truffle Association could lead us in the right direction, or at least any direction other than backward. He led us to a small shelf in another room where there were a few jars of truffle oil and some flavored truffle paste.

“Fresco?”, I asked, implying that we wanted raw truffles we could slice and dice ourselves. That’s how you get the most flavor, for sure.

“No,” he replied.

“Niente!?

Our new best friend at Associazion Tartufai Seneoi
Our new best friend at Associazion Tartufai Seneoi

He signaled for us to follow him to a small room in the back, opened a refrigerator door and pulled out a small, wrinkled brown bag. Inside there were truffles. We heard the pearly gates open and St. Peter sang, “Ah-aah, ah-aaaah, ah-aah!” They were a few days old, but not yet stale. Good enough for us. We sought resolution, not perfection.

“Non perfetto,” he said.

“Male?” I asked. ‘Male’ means ‘bad’ in Italiano. “No,” he said. “Ma non perfetto.” (But not perfect.)

He handed over two chunks which must weigh at least seven grams combined. That’s roughly 40-50 euro, or about $60 dollars. For free! I say “weigh” instead of “weighed” because they’re still intact. Tomorrow morning we’ll slice some up and drop it in a jar of olive oil (fresh from the Casanova di Neri vineyard/orchard we visited today) so we have truffle oil by the time we arrive in Rome via train domani (tomorrow). Over the next couple days we plan to make pasta as well as Pecorino al Tartufo (that damn delicious sheep’s milk cheese with truffles).

hunting for tartufi in stoked in San Giovasse D'Asso
A mural on the side of the road in stoked in San Giovasse D’Asso centro – hunting for tartufi bianco

Like I mentioned in the first line of this story, today was a good day. We had the some of the best cheese and definitely the best salami we’ve ever tasted… in their homeland. We got the best Brunello and olive oil from the most highly favored winery in Tuscany. Even competing wineries recommend Casanova di Neri, as we learned from a couple other ‘tasters’ at the facility. We found the best grappa in the world, after operating hours, and were rewarded with a private sampling and a tour of the facility, all after sneaking in the back door. We found white truffles – in fact, the last truffles available in their homeland – in their homeland. How? By going for it. By seeking them out and pursuing them to the bitter end.

trail running cinque terre, monterosso to corniglia
Cinque Terre (Five Lands) – Monterosso on left, Corniglia in background, and the steps where I almost turned back. That’s my brother, Jon, leaping the bridge, and the town of Vernazza on bottom.

I’d like to quote the recently famous last words of a stranger (in my mind, at least) I met on the trail between Levanto and Monterosso (the northernmost towns of Cinque Terre on the western coast of Italy) as I struggled to push myself through a mostly uphill 24k trail running battle with myself:

An elder man with a long, white, rockstar-style haircut and an accent that sounded British saw me charging up a steep hill, sweating and panting.
“Go for the gold!”, he hollered. I love when strangers encourage me through my workouts as if they’re living vicariously.
I gave him a thumbs up as I pumped and grunted my way toward the top about halfway through mile 11 with hands on my thighs. During mile 12, he came around a corner and saw me sitting down with my head in my hands as I contemplated turning back downhill, wondering Why am I doing this to myself? I looked up at him and spouted, “Silver!”
Without hesitation he replied, “No! Gold!”
I forced myself to my feet and worked my way to the summit, where I finally regained energy and took my last few sips of water, then continued on down the other side for another mile or so before turning around to head back toward Monterosso. When I passed him again on my way back, he smiled. I yelled, “Gratzi, mia motivazion!” (Thank you, my motivation!) and extended a sweaty high-five as we passed one another. He responded with a phrase I don’t think I’ll ever forget, “To the wall, mudafu**er!”

That’s what traveling is all about. That’s what life is all about. Going for it. Setting aside your comforts and pushing yourself to test new waters. You never know if you don’t go. And if you’re going to go, you may as well go “To the wall, mudafu**er!”

Today, mom was stoked. Jon (in Italiano, Gianni) was stoked. And of course, Adam is stoked.

stoked in San Giovasse D'Asso
It was a heel-kickin’ kind of day. San Giovasse D’Asso rests behind me… under the Tuscan sun. Photo cred: mama
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