Go get truffled! San Miniato, Tuscany

Want to see a darling hill town in Tuscany?  Then head for the hills! Get yourself to San Miniato, a very lively and attractive hill town near Pisa, famous for the white truffles found in the surrounding area.

Want to see truffles? The famous tartufo aren’t very pretty, but oh my goodness, do they taste good in Italian cuisine! Here’s a basket full of them:


I visited San Miniato yesterday, 17 November, during the annual truffle sagra held by the town.  Fall has definitely arrived in Tuscany and it was cold and overcast.  It almost makes me wistful about the heat of last July.  Almost. The next 2 pictures capture the weather as well as the beautiful vistas as seen from San Miniato of the beautiful Valdarno.


The truffle festival also features artiginale production of prosciutto, and there were lots of pork products on show, to taste, to purchase, and you could even buy specialized equipment for the home to slice the hams.  All shown below:





But the truffles are the raison d’être:  The festival San Miniato hosts every November is devoted to the gastronomically precious white truffle found locally. The white truffle is more highly valued than the black truffles found in Umbria and the Marche, and commands very high prices, reflected in the cost of restaurant dishes that incorporate truffles. In 1954 a record-breaking truffle found close to the nearby village of Balconevisi weighed in at 2,520 grams (5.56 lb) and was sent to the United States of America as a gift for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But even if you aren’t a fan of truffles or hams, there is still much to enjoy about this little gem of a town. For example, there is a lovely church with important Quattrocento frescoes:



The ceiling and upper sections of the basilica walls are painted with trompe’oeil marble architecture:




And the town’s Duomo has a simple Tuscan facade which doesn’t prepare you for the opulent interior filled with porphyry marble columns and a gorgeous, gold leafed ceiling:

The Duomo is dedicated to both Sant’ Assunta and Santo Genesio of Rome. It was originally a Romanesque building, but it has been remodelled several times and exhibits Gothic and some Renaissance arcchitectural elements. The façade incorporates a number of colorful majolica bowls. The interior has Latin cross plan with a central nave with two side aisles. The cathedral’s campanile, a fortification annexed in is called the Matilde Tower and features an asymmetrical clock. Very charming.

In medieval times, San Miniato was on the via Francigena, or the main connecting route between northern Europe and Rome. It also sits at the intersection of the Florence-Pisa and the Lucca-Siena roads. Over the centuries San Miniato was therefore exposed to a constant flow of friendly and hostile armies, traders in all manner of goods and services, and other travelers and pilgrims from near and far.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the site of the city and surrounding area has been settled since at least the paleolithic era. It would have been well known to the Etruscans, and certainly to the Romans, for whom it was a military post called “Quarto.”

The first mention in historical documents is of a small village organized around a chapel dedicated to San Miniato built by the Lombards in 783. By the end of the 10th century, San Miniato boasted a sizeable population enclosed behind a moat and protected by a castle built by Otto I.

In 1116, the new imperial vicar for Tuscany, Rabodo, established himself at San Miniato, supplanting Florence as the center of government. The site came to be known as al Tedesco, since the imperial vicars, mostly German, ruled Tuscany from there until the 13th century.

During the late 13th-century and the entire-14th century, San Miniato was drawn into the ongoing conflict between the Ghibelline and Guelph forces. Initially Ghibelline, it had become a Guelph city by 1291, allied with Florence and, in 1307, fought with other members of the Guelph league against the Ghibelline Arezzo.

By 1347 San Miniato was under Florentine control, where it remained, but for a brief period from 1367-1370 when, instigated by Pisa, it rebelled against Florence, and for another brief period between 1777 and 1779 during the Napoleonic conquest. It was still part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany when the Duchy was absorbed into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy in 1860.

The first walls, with defensive towers, were thrown up in the 12th century during the time that Italy was dominated by Frederick Barbarossa. Under his grandson, Frederick II, the town was further fortified with expanded walls and other defensive works, including the Rocca and its tower.

The city is enclosed within a well-preserved medieval precinct. Main landmarks include:

The Tower of Frederick, built by Frederick II in the 13th century on the summit of the hill at an elevation of 192 metres (630 ft), overlooking the entire Valdarno.



I love the frescoes showing all the parts of the Italian peninsula in the corridors of the Vatican.  Interestingly enough, the tower and San Miniato is among them:


During World War II the tower was destroyed by the German army to prevent the Allies from using it as a gun sighting tower, but was reconstructed in 1958 by architect Renato Baldi.
The remarkable Seminary, located in the central, unusually shaped Piazza della Repubblica, has a unique and spectacular set of frescos decorating the outside. as you can see in this photo and in my video taken yesterday:






If you can’t get to San Miniato yourself, at least you can enjoy this great Youtube video of the town filmed with the help of a drone.




La vendemmia: the grape harvest

It’s that time again!  Grape harvest all over the vineyards in Italia!

(And the news is excellent coming from France too:) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-champagne-makers-record-harvest-quality-grapes-vintage-wine-a8507911.html


The word “vendemmia” comes from the Latin words “vinum” (wine) and “demere” (take away).
In the past, grapes were picked either directly by hand or with the help of small knifes or scissors. The grapes were put in baskets, made of wicker or wood, and later they were moved into larger wood containers “tini” or vats, which were used for the crushing.
As most Americans will remember, Lucille Ball excelled at stomping grapes when she visited Italy on I Love Lucy.
Indeed, the crushing was done using the feet of the workers or with some special wooden sticks called “ammostatori,”  shaped like baseball bats.
The ammostatori were often used in small containers, while for larger and taller vats, ladders were used by workers, descending from the top.

In the common imagination the idea of feet crushing is well rooted, a ritual still done by some wine estate just because it keeps a sort of ancient fascination.



(Foto proveniente dall’archivio privato della famiglia Colombini. -1945, Neutro Martini, guardiacaccia della Fattoria dei Barbi, con un bigonzo di uva in spalla durante la vendemmia nella vigna dei podernovi.)

— at Museo Della Comunità Di Montalcino E Del Brunello.

Personally, I’ve spent some time recently in the rows of grape vines heavy with pendant grapes. What a treat to be in Chianti at the time of la vendemmia!

A perfect Italian summer Sunday

We chose Livorno as our Sunday getaway.  Livorno is a bustling port town and the 2nd largest city in Tuscany. We were lured by its history and its unparalleled seafood.

Livorno, not so well known outside of Italy,  boasts a picturesque system of canals, an authentic urban character, an attractive waterfront along with a fine collection of historical and cultural sites.

But the main advantage for us was that we had Francesca with us, a lovely woman who lived in Livorno when she was growing up.  We had our own personal tour guide!  She guided us here and there and took us to an outstanding restaurant, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We started here:  a monument to the Medici family (they were everywhere in Tuscany) with 4 Moors depicted on the lower level.  I show it here with 2 sweet sisters and good friends (of each other and of me).  We were ready for an adventure!





Sketching this monument was a local painter:


I thought he was very able, here’s his start above and below:



The painter is a colorful local with a lot of painterly skill.  Pay attention to his sketch because we will come back later and see how far he got.


We boarded a boat for a watery tour of Livorno. The barca took us through and around the city, including the most picturesque quarter of Livorno, the Venezia Nuova, aka “Little Venice,” with its canals, arching bridges, and ornate merchant palaces.


This city is simply unique, rich in history, and built upon the water by Venetian engineers who were hired to carry out a Medicean dream. Cosmopolitan Livorno was full with rich merchant palazzi during the 17th & 18th centuries. Merchants from all over the world arrived in Livorno, all of whom wanted to get in on what was a very lucrative trade.

These merchants petitioned the Grand Duke to grant them space to construct palaces and warehouses in order to furnish the port with an almost endless supply of provisions and luxuries. By the 17th century, Livorno was becoming one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean.

Livorno_map_of_the_town_02818_1 A 19th-century map of the city.


The canals of Livorno were constructed over waters reclaimed from the sea north of Livorno between 1629 and 1700.


See the Historic Venezia District of Livorno_1


Protected from the west and east by its two Medicean fortresses, we glided in our boat through the many sectors of the city, a once rich city which had become the coffer of the riches of all the world.




The Medici fortified the city and its water lanes with these massive walls.



“New Venice” was very much admired by intelligentsia and aristocrats on the 18th century “Grand Tour.” That atmosphere lingers today, with canals, shops and cellars on the water, and an architectural system tailor-made for commerce.


Gliding through the man-made canals, we saw evidence of the old artisanal traditions of the boatmen, sailors, barrel-makers, and porters who lived, worked, and traded secrets in “Little Venice.” We heard many stories, and became acquainted with Livorno’s lively and charismatic inhabitants, among whom were smugglers and pirates in the pay of the Grand Tuscan Dukes. Inside these palazzi, the city’s rich merchants and noblemen rubbed shoulders with the Grand Dukes, and, often, other random members of European aristocracy.

On the water we passed under the shadow of the octagonal dome of the church of Saint Catherine of Siena, which for 3 centuries has graced the Livornese skyline. We also saw the entrance of the so-called “New Fortress” of Livorno, an island completely surrounded by the city’s principal moat and canal, the Fosso Reale, and last remnant of the 5 original bulwarks of this fortified city, the famous pentagon of Bernardo Buontalenti.

source: https://www.livornotour.com/senza-categoria-en/la-piccola-venezia-toscana.php?lang=en

Livorno is also the home of Casa Modigliani, the birthplace and childhood home of Amedeo Modigliani. The Museo Fattori, Livorno’s art museum, contains artwork from Modigliani and 19th century Italian Impressionists. I am sad to report that we didn’t look at any of the many interesting museums.  It was a Sunday and we were on holiday!  We wanted to stay out doors and enjoy the city and the coast, not go inside a darkened space.


Santa Caterina church ahead on left.






Above is the 19th century mercato centrale.  It reminded me of the same type of structure in Florence.


Our boat ride lasted about an hour, and took us under the Piazza Repubblica, along the canals, to the harbour of the fishing boats, the harbour of the yachts, as well as past the fortress.

It was a beautiful way to enjoy a fascinating city. I am looking forward to returning to this intriguing place, which so often lives in the shadow of other Tuscan known cities.  I’d like to return in the fall or spring, or even the winter, because the height of summer is a brutal time to visit.




Here we are, roasting in the heat!




N. tried to keep Free (that’s his name, in English!) cool, but it was a losing battle.



Walking back to the car after the marina, we passed the artist and here is the sketch:


He had made a lot of progress and I tried to buy the sketch, but he said it wasn’t for sale because it wasn’t good enough.  No matter how I protested, he wouldn’t give.  He was in the process of loading up his supplies because it was just too hot and I thought he might like to lighten his load.  No go.

After the boat ride and a drive along the lengthy waterfront, we settled in at a ristorante chosen by Francesca for a long, leisurely lunch.  It’s Sunday and we’re in Italy, so of course it will be a long, leisurely lunch!  That’s what they do best here!

This was the view.



This was the food:   A small plate (ha ha) of mussels for antipasto.



A pasta of spaghetti vongole veraci for pasta.  Grilled fish for main.



When you put 2 or more Italians into the same space, you’ve created a party.  This charming gentleman joined our lively lunch.  He lives near Livorno and worked for 40 years for Coca Cola company.  He loves America and Americans.  He was sweet, can’t you just tell from his beautiful face?




Much later on, it was time for le dolce.  We tried a few. I started this course with a limone sorbet served with vodka:


We ordered a torta della nonna, which despite being called a cake is more like a cream pie.  The pastry was delicious, like a shortbread, and there was a vanilla creme patisserie in the center, plus pine nuts and powdered sugar on top.  We had to have a 2nd piece brought to the table. Here’s a recipe if you are inspired (you can translate with Google Translate):






Some members of our party skipped the torta and went straight in for the gelato.



All the while I looked towards America.  Can you see it? Way over there to the west? Hi America!  I’m worried about you.


After a couple of hours, out party had expanded like so:


And so:




As I was leaving the restaurant, I took a couple of shots of dolce I want to try in the future at this locale:


Below: profiteroles smothered in chocolate.



And no, the day wasn’t finished.

Next we drove to Montecatini, which has both lower and an upper versions.  You start in the lower level and ride the funicular up the the side of a mountian.  Charming beyond words is the station, built in 1898, and the cable cars with their wooden seats.


And yes, here we go, up this mountain side.  The picture lacks the drama of the real ride.




Once we arrived in Alto Montecatini, I was bowled over by yet another amazing little hilltop Italian village. Each one has its own flavor, but they all go into the category of “wonderful.”



This castle looking structure is the movie theater!!



Table set for dinner:



Random beauties:




Free had cooled off and now was enjoying his stroller.  He is as sweet as he is cute!



What a perfect day!

The world’s best yogurt? Penso di si.

This yogurt from the Palagiaccio food company is the best I’ve ever had.  Bar none.



It’s also hard to find; I can find it only in one store in all of Florence. The Sapori & Dintorni Conad market on Via de’ Bardi is where I’ve found it. There have to be other venders, trust me, I’m searching.




These lucky cows get to graze within view of Florence’s duomo!



Here’s my favorite product, strawberry yogurt like none other!



The packaging is simple and deceptive.  Luscious velvety yogurt is inside this plain jar.


Here’s info from the company’s website (http://www.palagiaccio.com/it/storia.htm):

Today, as in the past, the historic Palagiaccio farm plays an important role as a reference for the agriculture of Florence and it maintains the continuity with the tradition of cattle breading and milk production.

The farm has an ample agricultural area where cereals and forage are tilled. Crops are assigned wholly for feeding the hundreds of cattle of the farm.

Agricultural activities are marked by the maximum respect for the environment and all of them are realized with the objective of a low environmental impact.

We do not use GMO for a clear choice of our company: our target is a food farming activity compatible with ecology.

For this reason we obtained the certification of Agriqualità Toscana, i.e a regional title that certifies the quality of our products.