Tuscany off the beaten path – a weekend at Palazzo del Duca in Tavernelle
After beating the path to many of the well known destinations in Tuscany (posts coming) we wanted to explore the road less travelled and booked a weekend at Palazzo del Duca in Tavernelle. The town is located in Northern Tuscany’s “land of the moon”, Lungiana, known for its chestnuts and DOP honey.
Travelling off season we were going to be the only guests at the palazzo and the owners Mirella and Francesco drove up from their main home in Chianti to host us for a couple of cooking classes and wine tasting.
Tavernelle is about an hour drive from our coastal abode here in Tuscany. Once we got off the autostrada the roads became local and winding, taking us through a number of small and remote communities at the foot of the Apenine mountain range.
When we reached Tavernelle we followed Mirella’s directions to “turn left at Bar il Capriolo” and parked the car as the road ended. Our GPS advised that we had to “walk to our destination” and the website directions were to walk a few steps to Via del Borgo in front, turn left and Palazzo del Duca would be a few doors down on the left at n.77. In any event Mirella came to greet us and we walked together under the arch and the ancient narrow street to the palazzo.
This section of Tavernelle dates back to the 13th century and has been preserved intact. The narrow street still paved with the original stones and the ancient buildings conjur images of artisans, sellers and horse carriages making their way along the road in medieval time. This in its day was part of the salt road when salt merchants transported salt from the sea inland.
We arrived at the stone arch framing the door to the palazzo still featuring the eagle coat of arm of the Este family who lived there in the1500-1700 according to Mirella’s research. It is a 13th century large home that once belonged to a powerful wealthy family and was built with servants quarters below. We entered through the original wooden doors into a long arched hallway leading to the back of the house. This is where the carriages would have entered back in the day, and the horses probably taken to the field in the back. It makes a beautiful entrance hall today that immediately transports you to a different era. To the right of the hallway another stone arch opens to a beautiful wide ancient stone staircase leading to the apartments upstairs.
Our apartment on the first floor was very large. It had two spacious bedrooms, a huge living room with two small windows overlooking the back yard, a small bathroom and a modernly equipped kitchen. Our bedroom still had the original large fireplace from back in the day, evidence that this once belonged to a wealthy family who could afford this luxury. Mirella told me about another palazzo up the ancient street that has a fireplace so large that stone benches are built inside of it for sitting around the fire.
We settled in our apartment and then went downstairs to get acquainted with the property and the owners. Mirella and Francesco were born and raised in Chianti and both their families make wine, Francesco’s father professionally and Mirella’s father for family consumption. Homemade pasta and other good foods were and still are de rigueur in their homes and they each carry their family tradition with Mirella teaching cooking classes and Francesco, who earned his Sommelier diploma, making his own wine at the palazzo. They are supporters of local, organic and biodynamic foods and have a network of local artisans from whom they buy their food in the area.
On the first evening they set up a table in what in the past was the servants quarters on the ground floor. The long narrow room has an old fireplace and wood fire was crackling, perfuming the air with sweet, smoky aroma. This is their dining room with the kitchen in a similar size room next door. We were invited to come down for welcome drinks and food at 7:00 and Mirella prepared a lovely array of antipasti, vegetables, olives and cheeses served with Francesco’s homemade wine, Appiano 2014 that complemented the food beautifully. Their long term plans is to have a winery in Chianti where they can grow grapes and make their own wine, controlling the process from the vineyard to the glass.
The next day Mirella suggested a few towns to visit and we were to be back at 5:30 for a wine talk with Francesco followed by a cooking demonstration from Mirella as she prepared dinner for the four of us. She also suggested several local culinary specialties to try:
Torta d’erbe, a local pie with light pastry filled with leeks, spinach and local herbs.
Testaroli, pasta made from wheat flour, water and salt and cooked in large cast iron pans with lids. They are cut into thin squares and served with pesto.
Panigacci, unleavened bread rounds cooked in hot clay dish over open fire and served with cheese. The village of Podenzana is especially known for these
Local focaccia, a leavened bread cooked with olive oil and salt and particularly good in this part of the country.
Tortelloni, similar to ravioli, stuffed with local fresh ricotta cheese and spinach and served with butter and sage.
Local cepe (porcini) with pasta
Pattona, a type of pancake cooked in clay or fried and served with fresh ricotta.
We drove to a couple of towns in the area mostly accessible by steep winding narrow roads with spectacular views of mountains and valleys. We visited Bagnone, an ancient town on top of a mountain with a castle and a bridge crossing a deep canyon below. We sat at a cafe with our cappuccini and pastries which has become our MO when arriving at a new town, then walked around and bought local chestnut flour and chestnut flour pasta, both of which are what this region is known for. I stopped at a local vegetable shop and again was fascinated by how long they take to discuss the produce before they buy it. The vendor picks up the right fruits and vegetables for you and the back and forth was endless yet fascinating. I was waiting patiently while another customer walked off irritated as a customer was taking her time with an order of artichokes, giant lemons, asparagus, various lettuces and so forth. Eventually the vendor, seeing me with just one item (chestnuts flour) asked the lady if it was okay to let me go through and she agreed, but really, I enjoyed the going on and didn’t mind waiting. The chestnut flour is destined for homemade pasta. Stay tuned.
Our food destination for the day was Pontermoli, a slow food town known for several local specialties. I read online that George Clooney (yes, again…he is following me) is trying to buy an old farmhouse nearby to develop into an agriturismo. Hummm.
For lunch we stopped at Cafeteria Rostkafe Bar Trattoria (I think they have it covered…), hidden at the end of an arched alley. It was a lovely restaurant packed with local people and not a tourist in sight, except us. Trying to cross a few items off my must try list we ordered their unique local pasta testaroli, squares of thin pasta cooked in a cast iron skillet over fire and served with pesto, the Torta d’erbi, an herb pie filled with leeks, spinach and local herbs, tagliatelle with local porcini and at the end I had to try the pattona, fried chestnut flour pancakes served with fresh ricotta. The pancakes are savoury but we asked the server to bring a little chestnut honey and drizzled it on top. It may not have been authentic but it was delicious. We then went to the iconic Antica Pasticceria Degli Svizzeri (Swiss cafe) where they make Amor, a local delicacy consisting of a creamy custard filling with a hint of lemon sandwiched between wafer biscuits. All the food was unique and delicious.
We went back to the palazzo just in time for a much needed riposo (siesta) before joining Francesco in the dining room for a wine talk. It is evident right away that Francesco knows wine and loves to talk about it. Growing up he watched his wine maker father and became interested in wine in a professional way some 20 years ago. He earned his Sommelier diploma before starting to make his own wines at the palazzo. Francesco talked about the correct way of opening a bottle of wine (top of the neck, not close to the cork), how to pour it (with the label facing the guest/customer) and about not filling the glass too full (no room to swirl and air the wine). He talked about how to taste wine: with your eyes first, then with your nose and only then you taste it and how to watch for aftertaste. One interesting statements he made is that after tasting many outstanding wines and owning several bottles of great wines, he is less interested in those because they are so perfect that they don’t have a lot to teach you. It’s with the less than perfect wines were the learning occurs. His own wine, Appiano 2014, is a Chianti with good structure and balanced acidity that makes it wonderful to drink with food. Francesco also said that for him wine has to go with food. He does not pour a glass unless he is eating. Another interesting observation is that when he eats, he drinks wine between bites of food, not together, this way the you taste the wine and it cleanse your palate for the next bite.
After the wine session I joined Mirella in the kitchen for the cooking class and watch her prepare dinner. I didn’t ask for vegetarian menu because I don’t like to impose my preferences on other cooks but did asked her to prepare something with beans and she made a bean soup from her own homemade cannellini beans that she preserves in glass jars. No canned beans from the store in her kitchen. We also made the traditional tiramisu with egg yolks that had that beautiful orange colour that only comes from naturally grazing local chickens. She showed me how she makes espresso using the stove top espresso maker and it was interesting to see that she really packed the ground espresso tight into the basket portion, not just spoon it loosely in there.
Dinner was lovely and after the soup Francesco brought a special kind of beef from a rare Calvana breed. The Calvana cattle is raised organically and biodynamically on a handful of farms in Tuscany and are protected from extinction by special regulations so it is rarely available and apparently only Michelin starred restaurants serve it. Francesco gets it through is special connections. He cooked it over a grate right in the wood burning fireplace which was an experience in itself. It was meant as a special treat and it was.
Everything about the approach to food at the Palazzo is local, organic and biodynamic. Their exceptional cheese is made by an artisan next door, exquisite DOP chestnut and acacia honey is made by a beekeeper neighbour, the baker brings his just baked bread to their door every morning, they buy meat from local hunters or special organic farmers and they cook everything from scratch. The kitchen has a gas stove and a small oven but also has reminders of what it used to be, as evident by the original palazzo’s stone sink carve into the wall on the corner and still functioning.
For dinner Francesco opened a 2012 Chianti Classico from Podere Castellinuzza, made from Sangiovese and 5% Canaiolo grapes harvested by hand in the fall, fermented in cement vats and aged 18 months before being bottled and left to rest for another 4 months. It is an intense wine with ruby red colour and red fruit aroma and mild tannins and was a wonderful wine to have with our dinner. We also had LVNAE Divina Contessa Vino Rosado that was dry and crisp and very enjoyable on the palate with the food.
The next day we went out exploring and after visiting a couple of small ancient towns ventured onto a small unpaved road that was not much more than a hiking trail. My husband has no fear driving on these roads and before you know it we were half way up the mountain and had to go the whole way up in order to turn around. At the top of the mountain there was a big surprise. We stumbled upon an agriturismo called Montagne Verde, one of the four agriturismi in Italy chosen to represent the agriturismi business at the Expo Milano this year. That is a huge honour. We knew about the place through Mirella, in fact, earlier we tried to get reservations for lunch there but they were completely booked. Imagine that. But we didn’t know it was at the end of this non-road and frankly I cannot imagine how all the people who are booked for lunch will make it up there. But somehow they do. We walked into the restaurant that was all set for lunch (beautiful) an they offered us a cup of tea on their patio, unable to accommodate us for lunch. The view from there is gorgeous, especially now with fresh snow on the Apenine range just above it. We made it back down just before the lunch traffic begun arriving. This place has large following.
At Mirella’s recommendation we were booked for lunch at another local agriturismo Casa Turcheti and the chef at that place was in fact the chef at Montagne Verde until recently. The current chef at Montagne Verde trained under him, so at least we were going to eat the right food. Now the adventure of getting there. If the road to Montagne Verde was a hiking trail then the road to Casa Turcheti was a badly maintained hiking trail. I don’t know how we got there but got there we did and even found parking in the parking area. Now, where is the agriturismo? The only sign we saw was way down the mountain, everything else about getting there was by instinct and sheer nerve. From the parking area there was an ancient stone archway leading somewhere and eventually we found the restaurant after frustrating the waitress by getting in through the wrong door. Oh well. One thing I don’t get is how would you get your suitcases down there on these rocks if you stayed at the agriturismo.
We settled at beautifully appointed tables in the powder blue dining room and started to relax. This was promising to be a lovely lunch. The server spoke fluent English and we ordered way too much food trying to fit in with the other locals who were clearly enjoying a 4 course Sunday lunch with plenty of vino. The antipasto plate was beautiful and I was glad we ordered it. We asked for it to be light on the meat and they accommodated. I was too afraid to say no meat at all. Next came a delicious pasta course, and then a main course of chicken that was cooked in a special ancient oven, and then dessert…..a memorable lunch and I would do it again, especially now, knowing where they hide the place.
Who would have thought that this remote area is home to so many interesting places and such beautiful food?
Some more cooking demonstrations (home made ravioli with fresh ricotta and sage butter, lemon-pickled red onions ) and wine talks and before you know it the weekend came to an end.
We left with our loot of jars of chestnut and acacia honey and a few bottles of Francesco’s Appiano 2014 and special moments and memories engraved in our minds.
This is what travel is about, isn’t it?