day 6 :
friday, 19 may
Eric got up early today to wander the vineyards and paths around Borgo Argenina to catch the golden light of morning. We enjoyed our last breakfast at the B&B (including our morning ritual of shooing away Bianca, the resident friendly hungry dog), and said our goodbyes to Elena and the other guests. We left Elena with a parting gift, our copy of The Food and Wine Lover's Companion to Tuscany. Elena had seen us looking through our book earlier in the week, commenting that it's very hard for her to find books like that in Tuscany. How ironic! So, we were happy to contribute to her collection of Tuscan tourism books for future guests at Borgo Argenina.
On our way out of the Chianti region, we stopped at Castello di Brolio — the Barone Ricasoli's castle, which has been in the family for over 800 years. They produce wine on the property, and we had enjoyed some of their wines during dinners earlier this week. So, we parked the car, walked up the path, and spent several minutes standing before a massive iron gate, trying to figure out how to get inside. There were no buttons, buzzers, switches, or other things one would expect at an entrance. (After looking around aimlessly, Eric half-expected to find a sign above the gate saying “Speak, friend, and enter.”) But, Eric finally remembered a tip that Fiorenza had told us when we checked into our B&B several days ago: look for a string outside the gate. So, we walked back out, and indeed found a string hanging by the wall; it went thirty feet up, over the edge, and on to who-knows-where. We gave a tug, a little bell tinkled in the distance, and a moment later the massive gate clicked open. Presto. As we enjoyed a walk around the castle walls and through the garden, military jets flew overhead, practicing maneuvers. Old world meets new.
We hopped on the autostrada A1 and headed north to Bologna. This was our most harrowing drive of the trip, what with the high speed driving and curvy road that plunged into mountain tunnels every few kilometers. At one point, our little Fiat Idea was straining at nearly its maximum velocity (145 km/h) to pass a slower-moving car, when a red Ferrarri came speeding up from behind and waited impatiently to get past us. A few minutes after the Ferrarri went soaring by, we watched a Eurostar train on the track next to the autostrada fly by at well over 200 km/h.
We chose to stay near Bologna for a couple of nights because, well, Bologna is the food capital of Italy. When we departed our B&B this morning and Elena asked us where we were going, she looked quizzical at first and said, “Bologna? Are you going for the food?” “Why, yes.” “Good. Some people think the food in Tuscany is the best. But Italians knows that Emilia-Romagna, especially Bologna, is where you find the best food.” So, there it is.
The directions to our agriturismo were a little unclear, so we went one exit too far (a 30 km mistake) and wound our way back to the little town of Castelfranco, and then found our modest country agriturismo, Villa Gaidello. Besides lodging and feeding weary travelers, Villa Gaidello is a working organic farm that, among other things, grows hay and makes balsamic vinegar and wine. eGullet.org recommendations said that the dinner was not to be missed, so we booked ahead for dinner this evening. The place settings were certainly unique — we sat down at a small table that had a stack of plates in front of each of us. There was a brown terra cotta charger on the bottom of the stack, and five or so thick white plates on top of it. When we sat down, the topmost plate was shoulder level. The advantage of this approach, we figured, was that at any point, you would know how many courses you were through your meal, and could pace yourself accordingly!
The waitress arrived, and we chose only our water (naturale) and wine (rosso di casa). When the wine arrived and we poured it, we were a little surprised — it fizzled in our glasses like grape soda. What the heck did we order? We found out later that this type of fizzy red wine, called lambrusco, is a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna region, and Villa Gaidello makes their own, so the term “house wine” couldn't have been more accurate. Things started off with an extraordinary antipasto platter of balsamic onions, pickled artichokes, salami, mortadella, prosciutto, and an addictive light fried puffy dough. Everything was wonderful, but the second course was phenomenal: a simple pork-filled tortellini in broth, dusted with grated Parmigiano. The home-made tortellini were cooked perfectly al dente, and the meat broth was flavorful and a perfect complement to the pasta. Who needs pasta sauce when you have a broth like that? And lest you think that one pasta course is enough (we certainly don't), round two arrived: an amazing house-made garganelli (little ridged pasta squares folded into cylinders), with peas, tomatoes, onion, prosciutto, and butter. Next was roasted chicken and insalata mista, followed by zucchini fritti (fried zucchini strips) served with deep-fried lemon custard cubes. Mmm… tempura. Dessert was meringue and almond cookies, fruits steeped in liquor, and zuppa inglese. A bit like tiramisu, this was a layer of yellow egg crème, then a layer of pink crème, on top of a layer of chocolate. We had a similar dish the following week, and learned the secret to the pink coloring. To top it off, we sipped a home-made, fortified digestif called Nocino, made from walnuts. The flavor was reminiscent of Don PX, port, and armagnac all-in-one, but ten times more intense. After that nightcap, we rolled into bed and slept soundly.