We’ve been having a struggle with the weather this week. We started the week with snow, which was beautiful and magical and we loved it. Then the sun came out and it was clear and bright and we loved it. With the sun came the wind. It was hard and cold and we hated it. This wind is called tramontana, and means across the mountains. This wind comes from the north, over the Alps, and blows across Italy with violence.
Several nights when we went to bed we could hear the wind rumbling outside. This wind doesn’t howl, it rumbles. It’s a presence, a force – it’s not gentle and it’s not mild. It’s dominating. When it blows, you know it’s in charge. We’ve been housebound most of the week because it’s just too windy to do anything outside. We’ve managed a couple of walks, bundled against the gusts, heads down, eyes watering. The wind will not be photographed like the fluffy snow or the warm sunshine, casting its beams earthward. You can only see it disturbing the trees and bushes, lashing them around like wet noodles. My weather app says the winds have been about 15 miles an hour and I believe that may be an understatement.
The Tuscan Sun
Frances Mayes knew what she was doing when she linked the sun and Tuscany together in the minds of millions. It’s one of the those book titles that are so evocative that they’ve become standard parts of speech. Catch 22, Gone With the Wind, even Frankenstein. Under the Tuscan Sun conjures an image of rolling green landscapes, dotted with vineyards and olive groves, all basking under bright blue skies with brilliant sunshine. And that is so true. There is nothing like the Tuscan sun. It warms you body and soul like nothing else. The second you step out of it, into a house or the shade of a tree, you miss it. Just like the wind, the sun here is a presence, a force.
Friday our week of tramontana hell ceased. The sun was dominating and it was a glorious day ripe with possibilities. We couldn’t let this day go by without paying homage to the sun and celebrating the demise of the tramontana. We took a road trip.
To the Casentino
The Casentino is a valley between Arezzo and Florence and is a food and nature lovers dream. The Arno flows through it and its forests provided much of the wood used in the construction of the Duomo in Florence. National parks abound here with great trails and incredible scenery. That we will come back and do in the spring and summer when the temps are higher and the snow gone. It also has a rich religious history, with the monasteries of both Della Verna and Camoldoli in the hills above. We were there for the food and the castles.
Lunch in Bibbiena
We stumbled on a restaurant in Bibbiena several years ago that we just love. I found Il Tirabuscio through my Slow Food app (it never steers me wrong) and it’s become a food destination for us.
We had a wonderful lunch that was as beautiful for the eyes as the stomach. Steve had Battuta di Chianina, which means beaten chianina (the most wonderful beef from Tuscany). It’s basically steak tartare. I prefer my meat cooked, but he loves this dish. I had pici pasta with sambudello ragu, a kind of blood sausage made from Casentino grey pigs. Sambudello is specific to this area and really can’t be found elsewhere in Italy. This is the kind of simple dish that I always seek out on menus. Local ingredients prepared with minimal fuss. Steve had potato tortelli with a Casentino grey pig ragu. His ragu was tomato based, very unlike mine. Potato tortelli are also very specific to this area and are rooted in cucina povera – poor cooking where they took what they had and fed their families. In this case, potatoes substituted for meat in the tortelli (kind of like ravioli). Both these dishes were wonderful – flavorful, subtle, and very, very local. After the pasta, we shared a cheese tray with local cheeses and honeys. This is my favorite way to end a meal – several bites of cheese with a drizzle of local honey. Perfection.
There are several castles in the Casentino, many of which we’ve visited over the years. We wanted to go to some we’d never been to, so set out for Stia in search of the Castello di Porciana. Porciana is pint-sized hamlet that sits in the hills above Stia. One of the few remaining castles in the area, it was home for a while to the exiled Dante. Built around 1000, it was the home to the Guidi family, a noble family from the north of Italy who married into a noble Tuscan family and proceeded to build several castles in the Casentino. To look at it today, you wonder about the term “castle”. It looks more like a fortress than something you would imagine Sleeping Beauty occupying. And in fact it was. Defense was the primary concern and you couldn’t be too high or too fortified to protect your holdings. Unfortunately for us, the castle is only open for tours from May to October, so all we could do was walk around it and look up and imagine. Porciana is a teeny-tiny place, but is actively occupied. We saw several locals taking advantage of the wonderful sunshine and the absence of the tramontana, gazing out over the gorgeous Casentino valley, renewing their connection to the universe.
We just couldn’t let go of this perfect day, so when we got back home, we strolled down to the sports bar and had a cocktail to cap it off. In the glory days of summer and fall, we had a ritual of going to the bar on Friday afternoons. Steve continues to point out to me that Friday has no real relevance to us since we don’t measure our time by the work week anymore. But decades of anticipation for Friday and all it meant are still ingrained in my psyche and I hold Friday in reverence. Although now, Mondays are pretty great, too.