South-west Tuscany proves the point that Italians live to eat
By Marianne Heron
Names can speak volumes. Cecina, the nearest town to our Tuscan holiday base, is named after a delicious chickpea pie. And the implied promise of gastronomic good times in the area turns out to be true – south-west Tuscany boasts wonderful produce, the basis for a delectable cuisine. Less well known than the Chianti region, the south-west offers an agreeable choice of incomparable medieval hill towns perched above rolling unspoiled countryside and a coastline fringed with lively resorts. Situated to the south of Pisa, the area is popular with Italian holidaymakers, which is always a guarantee of good restaurants. La California, the name of a local village, is somewhat puzzling, but it turns out that the name wasn’t exported to America. A migrant fell in love with California, USA, and brought the name home to his farm and the village that grew up nearby. Pisa and its famous tower and the Etruscan city of Volterra are less than an hour away.
The nearby S1, which skirts the coast from Rome to Livorno, feeds into the motorway to Pisa where the Fi-Pi-Li expressway links Pisa with Florence. Lucca and Siena are within easy reach too. But for us the medieval hill towns prove the most enchanting: places like Massa Marittima, a hilltop city where the main square, Piazza Garibaldi, is dominated by a splendid 13th-century cathedral that is dedicated to St Cerbone and crowned with mythical beasts. At the Fountain of Abundance nearby is the curious fresco known as The Tree of Fertility, said to guarantee pregnancy. Alleyways wind up through layers of the city’s history to the great Sienese fort and clock tower that stand guard at the summit.
Following the advice of our hosts, we avoid restaurants where tourists eat outside under umbrellas and opt instead for one where the locals are eating indoors (a guarantee of better food and lower prices). Lunch under the arcades of the Palazzo delle Armi beside the Mining Museum proves the point with feather-light seafood gnocchi and a simply enormous wafer-thin pizza.
Within a few days of our arrival we give in and do as the Tuscans do. Midday pranzo, with up to four courses, is obligatory and early starts are advisable to avoid arriving just as everyone shuts up shop for siesta. “Writing about Tuscany without describing food is like writing about the Titanic without mentioning that it sank,” writes Ferenc Máté in his delightful book The Hills of Tuscany. And it is true – food is central to Tuscan life.
Until the 1950s, agriculture in Tuscany was based on mezzadria, or ‘share cropping’, and the cuisine still focuses on the best of local ingredients. From boar, hare and wild mushrooms to ham, salamis and seafood, it remains cucina della nonna (grandmother’s cooking). We stay in a 250-year-old building with high vaulted brick ceilings, surrounded by meadows, and take great pleasure in cooking, eating outdoors in the shade and shopping in the vast foodie heaven of one of Cecina’s supermarkets. The displays of fruit, vegetables and luscious oysters, squid, prawns and dozens of varieties of fish are overwhelming.
Numbered tickets are supplied to those who queue at the vast cheese and delicatessen counter, and sampling and foodie discussions are encouraged. The markets held in different locations on different days of the week are superb for fresh food but, alas, Italian-made fashion goods have been replaced by cheap Chinese imports. Our days are spent exploring (and eating, of course). San Gimignano, with its extraordinary skyscraper-like defence towers (only 14 of the original 72 remain), is memorable.
Standing in Dante’s Hall in the Communal Palace, unchanged since Dante Alighieri held court there as Florentine Ambassador in 1300, scores high on anyone’s goose bumps factor. Back in the present, the Via San Giovanni is lined with shops selling tempting local products: wine, dried pasta and mushrooms, handpainted majolica (pottery) and chocolate pan forte. And there are restaurants galore, some, like the Osteria delle Catene, offering local specialities that include saffron soup and hare cooked in wine. The Etruscan city of Volterra, originally founded in the third century, is crowned by the 12th-century duomo on Piazza San Giovanni. Museo Etrusco Guarnacci and its collection of artefacts is a must-see. Shops offering locally made shoes, handbags, linens and carved alabaster – not to mention the ice cream – are totally irresistible.
“Ha mangiato bene?” (Have you eaten well?) is a common question in Italy and if you are not discussing your most recent meal, you are planning the next one. There is no better place to do both than in the village of Bolgheri, in the heart of a wine district celebrated for its Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Antinori wines, where farms sell wine and fresh produce from stalls nearby.
The village, which happens to be 10 minutes’ drive from our base, is devoted to restaurants and enotecas (wine and delicatessen shops) and approached via a fivekilometre avenue of ancient cypress trees immortalised by the poet Giosuè Carducci. We are drawn irresistibly to Enoteca Tognoni, a restaurant filled with guests sitting at long communal tables and tucking into the local antipasto of salami and cheese. Having done the same, we cannot resist the local speciality: wide ribbons of pappardelle with wild boar sauce.
Italian beaches are something of a culture shock for anyone used to the South African surfing scene. Rows of bathing huts and deckchairs shaded by umbrellas line the shore, and the regulars are members of bathing stations that often have their own restaurants. Not a single swimmer, never mind a wave, is to be seen in the water at our nearest seaside resort of Marina
di Cecina; Italian holidaymakers are too busy working on their abbronzatura.
The word ‘stunning’ best describes the Tarot Garden at the southern end of Tuscany near Capalbio. Created by French artist Niki de Sainte Phalle over 20 years, the garden features giant sculptures of the 22 major figures of the Tarot. The sculptures are completely covered in dazzling ceramics and mirrors. Niki actually lived inside the giant mirrored interior of The Empress for a year. On the way there – resisting the temptation of a trip from Piombino across to the Island of Elba – we stop at the upmarket resort at Porto Ercole on the promontory of Monte Argentario, where beautiful villas and smart shops cluster above the sheltered harbour.
But the roads less travelled are equally enjoyable. The hilltop village of Casale Marittima has views across the countryside to the Tyrrhenian coast. Lunch at the Locanda Le Volte is a culinary adventure with animated discussions over the menu. The choice includes liver crostini, clams with pasta cooked in squid ink, and wild boar and venison casserole. And the view of olive groves from our table could launch a thousand postcards. Buon appetito.
By David Morgan