Farming & Fortezzas: Tuscany pt. 4

We spent two glorious days out at Giovanni and Grazie Amirrabile’s farm near Firenze. They have a vineyard and an olive grove along with a large community garden. The Amirrabiles are good friends with Jessica and Stephanie. We were invited to join the family for a down home Tuscan farm lunch and to do a little work on the garden. Dirt therapy sounded like a good thing to us. Unfortunately for our first visit it was to be mud therapy. It had been pouring rain for the past 24 hours, and the fields were huge clay bogs. That stopped our work, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying the lunch. There is an order to Tuscan/Italian meals. I forget the fancy names given to each course, but it goes something like this. First came the pasta. When the pasta was ready the meal began. Nobody likes cold pasta! Giovanni treated me to his special homemade olive oil pepper sauce to add to my pasta. It added an incredible kick to an already mouth watering dish. There was such a huge vat of pasta on the table that I mistakenly thought it was the entire meal. After that came the meat dish. The first time we ate there Grazie served us chicken, the next time she served us eggs. (I always thought that the egg came before the chicken in answer to that age-old question.) After that came the salad. Throughout the meal there was fresh Tuscan bread, gallons of olive oil for everything, and always a full glass of Chianti. It’s no wonder they usually take a nap after lunch! To keep us moving their daughter Kati made us espressos and passed around a basket of kumquats for dessert. And of course everything was grown right there on the farm. After our rainy day meal Phil (an American who married into the farm via Kati) toured us around the farm and the adjoining church retreat center. We learned about olive oil (Extra virgin means it’s the first pressing of oil for the season, the highest quality and should be a little green in the bottle). We saw where they prepared the grapes for the Chianti they make. It’s an amazing place.

We came back about a week later to help out in their garden. Along with Phil and his three-year-old son, Benjamin, we set to staking beans, planting tomatoes, and digging holes for zucchini. After a few hours of digging, trenching, carrying, and planting we joined the rest of the family for lunch back up at the farmhouse. Phil walked us through the vineyards and olive groves on the way back. It’s a huge job for one family to run an operation like this. Lunch was once again wonderful, and we went back to work to complete our tomatoes. The ground here is sticky clay with tons of rock in it. It blows my mind that anything grows in it, but grow it does. Phil explained that it’s important for the plants to struggle a bit if they are going to produce any favorable fruit. They might not produce as much fruit as plants that grow in “cushy soil,” but they will produce much hardier and fuller flavored crops. It seems to work. Everything produced on the farm tasted great. So thank you to Giovanni and Grazie, and Phil and Kati for opening your table and lives to us. We look forward to visiting and working together again some day.

We met another family through Stephanie named Eduardo and Karla Godoy. Eduardo is a doctor at the Army base who is about to return to California. We swapped emails over dinner one night and later made plans for an evening hike outside of the town of Vicopisano to a place called Fortezza Verruca. The fortezza is located on a wart-like outcropping of rock on top of a hill overlooking the Arno Valley between Pisa and Florence. Remember that these two towns were economic rivals and archenemies for much of their medieval history. Pisa built this fortress as a lookout and last stand against the Florentine invaders. It was pretty effective but eventually fell to Florence sometime after the plague ravaged the population of Pisa. The old fortress is rumored to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci, but the area had been used as a stronghold long before him dating back into the 8th century AD. It was a bumpy four-wheel-drive to the hiking trail (which had the kids shrieking with glee as they bounced and bonked their heads on the roof ) and a steep climb to the fortress ruins. Eduardo, his two-year-old son Paco, Matt (a nurse at the base), Stephanie, and the rest of us climbed on and under everything. The views of the Arno Valley were stellar as we watched the clouds blow in from the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a refreshing evening not unlike taking a hike in our local Santa Barbara hills. Except of course that here we were visiting a fortress five times older than anything built back home. Thank you Eduardo for your hospitality and the hike. We hope to return the favor someday when you return to the states.

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