Friday, June 29, 2007

Day 6: Hiking Cinque Terra and Dinner at the Marina

I just realized it is Cinque Terra, not Cinq Terra. Haha! Blame it on my french bias.

After tea (and you know, after the massive amount of eating we had done over the last week), we really wanted to take a hike and we walked to Corneglia, about an hour and a half away, through the hills and the most breath taking scenary.

There were parts of the walk that were esconced in temperate forested areas, as well as paths by the cliff which looked out onto wispy spring flowers and the most gorgeous collection of little headland towns.

This is pretty much when we realized the effects of having eaten so much Italian food for a week. All pretensions that we had any real restraint went out the window as we huffed and puffed our way up the slope.

After the hike, we trained from Corneglia to Manarola where we had dinner, as we had to give Riomaggiore a miss. There is apparently a lovely walk there, known as the Lovers Walk but given that bad weather and some rock falls, some of the hike trails were actually closed that day.

For dinner, we went to this little place on the Marina at Manarolo and I believe it was called Marina Piccolo. The reason I'm not entirely sure, is firstly, that the capacble S. planned the entire Cinque Terra itenary and I was so happy to leave it in her hands that I was entirely switched off. Secondly, after hiking an hour and a half, I was too hot, too tired and too heavy to think or remember anything in particular. I know, it's awful.

I do remember what we ate though and it was primarily seafood. We had a seafood linguine, a large bowl of mussels and hard bread, a thick sauced crab squink-ink pasta and a dish of calamarie.

All seaside towns pride themselves on their seafood. However, for many, this has become a tourist institution, rather than a real culinary experience. This was probably the case here as well as the whole restaurant and area looked somewhat deserted. Most of the people hiking with us seemed to either have gone back to La Spetzia (probably afraid to miss the last train downhill and be caught out for the night in one of these windswept headlands) or perhaps gone to the bigger towns, or maybe we were just there in low season.

The cooking sort of matched the freshness of the catch, somewhat half-hearted and lacking. The pastas were in extremely thick, creamy sauce (which I really don't associate with seafood) and were disguising, rather than enhancing in their texture and tastes. The calimarie was good but generally, I felt that everything in the town was probably just out of a can and that the fishing boats were mostly for show.

We walked into the kitchen (that was how lacking the service was) and saw the dessert cart, in their chocolate tart, they had burnt the chocolate! There were obvious smears of slightly charred chocolate. The lemon tart looked only slightly better but their custard tart with pinenuts looked good and it indeed was. It was the best thing in the meal, with a great combination of creamy custard, delicious roasted pinenuts and a dark caramelized sauce.

Restaurant Marina Piccola
Via lo Scalo 16
19010 Manarola (La Spezia)
Phone: +39 0187 920103

Day 6: Cinq Terra and Il Pirate

Sadly, our time at the villa had come to an end. We packed up early in the morning and bade the house a sad farewell.

We brought out the maps and begun the long drive back North, around Pisa and toward the seaside towns of Cinq Terra. We pulled in to La Spetzia at about noon and checked-in to our hillside hotel.

Personally, I just want to say that after this trip to Italy, my top stock picks are MY Hotel (a boutique budget hotel chain, bursting at the seams with travellers), Coop/IperCoop (or some other supermarket chain like Conad or Esselunga), from what I can see, there is definitely a shift toward shopping in supermarkets for the increasingly urban Italian population and definitely a luxury brand; amongst the many, I like Gucci (they've been making good buys like Bottega Veneta, which is still white-hot in Italy). If they work out, maybe they could fund a return trip to Italy eh?

Ok, sales pitch over. We grabbed our trekking shoes and headed out to the train station.

Cinq Terra, as the name suggests, has five little towns or headlands in the sea, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola & Riomaggiore, which are spread out over 5 miles of rocky coast, surrounded by vast areas of dry walling & cultivated into vineyards.

J. gave us a good tip to stay in La Spetzia and take the rail up to the individual villages, rather than risk the steep drive up to stay at one of the villages.

We trained out from La Spetzia to Monterosso but bad weather followed us all the way.

Even in the rain though, one could clearly make out that these were these were colourful, perhaps slightly grimy, vacation towns.

There were lots of young families and backpackers, similarly on vacation and many locals had rented out rooms in their homes and shops for iternarant visitors.

We continued from Monterosso to Vernazza where the rain had let up a bit so that we could take a walk.

Vernazza is probably the most representative town of the five, so we decided that we would spend more of our afternoon here, walk around to see the sights, then head on the mountain-side trek toward another village.

At Vernazza, we also visited the Il Pirate Cafe where hoards of tourists come for breakfast.

Little wonder as there is really not much food in the villages and this place has really cheery ambience, a funny manager, as well as cute desserts.

We were served a few fresh granitas, which are made out of freshly squeezed lemonade and strawberries, with dollops of cream.

In case you want to eat, the other house specialties include home-made cannolonis and strawberry pastries as well as tiramisu.

While the tiramisu was a bit bland in taste (but served in a very kitsch ceramic cone dish), the cannolonis were good and I was impressed that they made them out of the random little kitchen.

No matter what you wind up having, you should wash it down with some fresh spermuta or blood-orange juice. The juice in this region, I found, over the next couple of days, is more like a ruby grapefruit juice. The oranges themselves bleed a vaguely red colour and the resultant juice is a macarbe but delicious dark red.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Day 5: Montalcino and Castello Banfi

The next day was the last one that we were to spend in Tuscany. We decided to spend the day exploring the drive south of the Lucignano house, toward Montalcino where we were to visit an old abbey and some wineries and have lunch at a castle.

The drive south of Siena is much more well-marked and direct than north toward Florence (even and especially through some of the small Chianti roads). The landscape is characterized by stark rolling hills, marked by winding roads lined with dark cypresses and fortified towns, but among the most important features, are the numerous acres of vineyards from which some of Tuscany's most esteemed red wines are produced, the Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino.

We drove directly to Sant Antimo Abbey- about 6 miles from Montalcino, it's an incredibly quaint Romanesque Abbey. Visitors from around the world come to hear the Gregorian chants which have made the abbey so famous. The legend is, Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor decided in the year 800, upon his return to Rome, to set up camp on the location which is now the Abbey. His soldiers were struck by the plague in the middle of the night when an angel appeared and instructed Charlemagne to make an infusion of the holy grass and some wine (Brunello?) and give it to the soldiers.

"Carlo Magno" as he is known in Italian, declared that an abbey be built right on that spot to glorify the miracle. The present abbey dates back to the 12th century as it was built on the ruins of the original 8th century building and sits in a large valley with views of the hill town Castelnuovo dell'Abate, rolling hills covered in olive groves and vineyards, and wild forests.

The best time to visit is during the scheduled chants of prayers, so that you can hear the gregorian chanting by the monks who live in buildings nearby. The monks start chanting exactly at the schedule time and the chanting lasts about 12 minutes. The day we were there, there was some sort of gathering of vintage car owners and all these well-heeled Italians got out and rushed with us to a spot in the abbey.

We sat and heard the monks out for all of three minutes. The gregorian chants were not really...spiralling and uplifting. It wasn't really church boys, more like... a slightly gothic, sinister muttering, the kind of orthodox Catholic churches in St. Kilda or Ireland. Luckily there was no timed or expected genuflection but in any case, we were really hungry for lunch, so we skipped outside back into the sunshine after a few minutes.

Everyone came pouring out after as well because it started to rain. We hopped back into the cars and high-tailed it to Castello Banfi. It took a long time to find the castle, so we had to pose triumphantly with the signs when we did find it (another Singaporean trait). We arrived somewhat late for the lunch booking we had, so we went straight to the dining room.

The dining room is set near the wine cellars and at the front-end of the castle. It is possible to take a full tour but we didn't wind up doing that in the end, as lunch was a slow and somewhat formal affair. This even though we were dining in the tavern or cafeteria, as opposed to the formal dining room inside the castle, which is available for dinner and at a much steeper price.

I believe we paid about 50 Euros for our lunch, which wasn't particularly cheap, given that the portions were particularly small. However, it was very satisfactory and it gave us a chance to sample the three most recognized wines of the vineyard as part of the daily degustation. The first was the Fountanelle, a buttery smooth white wine which I loved. It was rich but still sweet, vaguely reminiscent of the white wines of Les Baux de Provence (thicker and more full-bodied but less buttery and flowery sweet). This was served with an excellent fennel flan.

The second course we had was a simple home-made pasta with ragu. Along with the risotto from La Giostra, I would say this was the best pasta we had on the trip. The pasta itself was so incredibly flavourful, it led me to wonder if it were possible to cook pasta in broth- that's how complex the taste and texture of the pasta was. The ragu was very typically Tuscan, just a sliver coat onto the pasta, but meaty and flavourful. We ate every single strand of pasta up and could have had twice as much! The pasta was served with their own Rosso di Montalcino, which is a lighter, thinner red wine. I don't realy like it much but then it is a third the price of the mighty full-bodied, magenta red Brunello.

The star wine was really Castello Banfi's Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, which is the great red wine of Tuscany. Brunello is a local term referring to the grape variety sangiovese. These wines are of superior quality and limited production. Intense, concentrated and tannic, they tend to require long aging. They come onto the market usually five years after the harvest although you know, with the prices being what they are, it's entirely possible to purchse them right after the harvard year nowadays. This was served with a pork loin, a really simple and we thought, perhaps disappointing concept, but it wasn't at all. The pork was tender and succulent, made for a gorgeous and slightly lighter main dish. I totally enjoyed it and I usually shy away from pork dishes.

The desserts were wonderful as well. These were not included in the set but we ordered a berry dessert, a chocolate mousse and a strawberry panna cotta. The panna cotta was the stuff of dreams, light, fluffy, completely inhaleable, with unfortunately, a slightly artificial strawberry cordial dripping but other than that, the meal was faultless.

I had my reservations about spending this much on a meal, especially in the middle of the countryside. I'm so glad we did and if you are in the area, I really do recommend a winery-focused tour of Montelcino and a stop for lunch or dinner at Castello Banfi, it's quite an experience.

After lunch (it was tea time, before lunch was over), we stopped by the wine room to make some purchases. The Fountanelle was just 13 Euros, which I thought was a steal for such a superlative white wine. Castello Banfi was declared “International Winery of the Year” an unprecedented four times and Italy’s “Best Wine Estate” every year since 1994.

The estate really is sited in the most beautiful of areas, which is full of vineyards and olive groves. We'd finished lunch so late that we headed back north toward home and decided to have a cook-in for our last dinner at the villa.

We also wanted to use up leftover rice we had in the fridge for fried rice and decided to team that with some curry chicken, using the sauces I had brought and some stir fried vegetables.

We made a filo pastry fruit turnover, with some plums, pears and leftover apples and it was really nice to sit in clean sweats and watch the photos from our trip so far before we packed up and headed to Cinq Terra the next day!

Day 4: An afternoon in Florence, Perche No and Aqua Al 2

After the short 10 min drive out to the airport, we regrouped with the others, who had been waiting at the Baptistry in the city center. There were two main aims of our afternoon, one was to seek out the two gelato hotspots, recommended by our friend who had done an overseas program in Florence and another was to take a walk by the Ponte Vecchio, which C. and I had managed to miss on our last girls trip to Europe.

This was the Best gelato that we ate on the trip. Absolutely the best. I had the green tea and double dark chocolate flavours and they were creamy and just absolutely full-flavoured. It was gorgeous, even for a person (like me) who doesn't prefer gelato on the usual day.

The two places we were told of were Perche No! and Vivoli. For me, Vivoli was a bit tacky, the front was a very faux-Roman bistro exterior and the gelato was very thick and strong but the flavours were not as clear and clean tasting as Perche No! I had Perche No gelato two days in a row (or was that twice in a day?) and seriously, I won't have another gelato in Singapore again. Nor anywhere else in the world, till I am assured it'd be as good as Perche No. That's pretty much how good it was. Although not my favourite flavour, the gelato man said that Pistachio was the best flavour they had and my friends confirmed it was sublimely out-of-this-world.

Ponte Vecchio was very pretty! Kind of like the Mary Poppins watercolour world. This is a cute picture of S. and W. in front of the actual bridge but it looks like some surrealist painting.

I wished that we had more time to explore Florence, I had thought that Florence and the Tuscan countryside, being not that far apart, would be entirely explorable within the same day but I was wrong. Florence is really a city that needs dedicated love and entire days given to exploring its streets, sights and food.

Given our heavy lunch at Trattoria Zaza and the doses of ice cream throughout the day, we were not very hungry when it came to dinnertime. We'd booked at this little place called Aqua Al 2.

While cute, campy and clearly a nightspot for college girls, I felt that the standard of cooking was not quite up to par with the other places we had eaten at. Apparently this place is so famous that tour buses have started to pull up, full of diners but I found the whole place rather commercial and with a disconcerting number of noisy Americans and tourists.

The restaurant has a little grotto space, which is decorated with plates, adorned with signatures of their regular and celebrity clientele.

Under a barrel-vaulted ceiling and dim sconce lights, diners sit elbow to elbow at tightly packed tables to sample this innovative restaurant's assaggi (tastings) courses. The idea is for each course to come as a a trio of little plates. For our light dinner, the six of us shared two courses of salad starters, pastas, mains and desserts. This is a picture of their hummus dip that accompanies the bread.

There weren't very good pictures of the pastas, as the lighting in the restaurant was very dark and personally I didn't find the pastas very good, they were quite commercial and the sauce on the pasta was rather thick. The only half decent picture was of the blueberry steak but again, the execution left a bit to be desired. The bread had dried out and the blueberry taste was stark and jarring against the meat, which had been broiled to a well-done toughness. I was pretty disappointed, this restaurant has reviews of people saying its their best meal in Italy ever and things like that but it certainly wasn't the case for us. While not exactly bad, this was a meal we could definitely have skipped.

The restaurant also has a branch in San Diego.

Perche No!: Via Tavolini 19r, 0039-055-239-8969
Vivoli: Via Isole delle Stinche 7r, 0039-055-292-334
Aqua Al 2: Via della Vigna Vecchia 40r, Via dell'Acqua, Near the Duomo