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FALL DESTINATIONS : Savoring the seasonal bounty of
Chianti country, where the fruits of the harvest show
up in classic wines and deliciously simple cuisine.

Ripe Time for Tuscany

September 20, 1998|NANCY SPILLER | Spiller is a Glendale-based freelance writer

CASTELLINA IN CHIANTI, Italy — Fall in the region of Tuscany is a time of gracious fecundity, when vineyards are heavy with black fruit, plump figs fall from the trees and the forests are filled with porcini mushrooms the size of throw pillows. Honeyed light falls on scarlet-berried bushes and on paths littered with chestnuts glistening like polished lumps of mahogany.

From the vine-covered deck of our rented 300-year-old house deep in the woods of the Chianti area of Tuscany, we can hear the faint sound of sheep bells and the soft pop-pop of hunters' rifles as they bag cinghiale (wild boar) for the grill. It's harvest time here in Chianti--when man meets nature in unequaled harmony in the rolling, ribbed landscape of vineyards, olive orchards and oak preserve, and in the simple yet highly evolved cuisine of the Tuscan table.

Our first trip to the fertile wine-growing area between Florence and Siena was in October two years before. Having tired of the big cities, my husband, Tom, and I had driven north from Siena until we turned down a dirt road and discovered Vescine, an idyllic hillside hotel between the medieval fortress villages of Radda in Chianti and Castellina in Chianti. We stayed blissfully put, unable to think of a reason to wander. The countryside was happily lacking in must-see museums or killer cathedrals, offering instead the simple luxuries of air pure enough to bottle, quiet more perfect than any painting and peach sunsets that lacked only an archangel and a heavenly choir.

Also discovered on that trip was the undeniable high that comes from eating food and drinking wine born of the same soil. It's a state of gastronomic grace hard to come by today when most food has been "FedExed" to your plate.

Credit Chianti's agricultural variety to soil cultivated for about 3,000 years, first by the Etruscans and then the Romans. Local farmers know what the stuff can do. As a result, Tuscan cuisine is primarily based on fine ingredients eaten at their freshest. "It is spare home cooking," Waverley Root says in his classic book "The Food of Italy," "hearty and healthy, subtle in its deliberate eschewing of sophistication, which is perhaps the highest sophistication of all."

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To experience this again, we made another October trip, but this time we rented a three-bedroom stone house called Casa Pratese, about two miles from Castellina. For $600 a week ($1,200 in high season, roughly June through September), it came with a lichen-covered tile roof, casual garden of feathery-leaved cosmos flowers and potted geraniums, and a fig tree taller than the house and heavy with fruit. Inside were beamed ceilings, tile floors, wood-shuttered windows and a fireplace in the corner of the modest but well-equipped kitchen. No microwave or dishwasher here, but more importantly, a good bread knife, cheese grater and wine opener.

Mornings at Casa Pratese began with sunlight coming through the bedroom window, stove-top espresso, a glass of juice squeezed from blood oranges, prosciutto di Parma wrapped around fresh figs from our tree, toasted bread--either ciabatta (made without salt so that it will stay fresh for a week, and it does) or schiacciata panzanesa, a peppery raisin bread from nearby Panzano, topped with jam.

The daily garden tour was accompanied by the resident outdoor cats, our vacation pets, including the kitten I dubbed Piccola Macchina, "little car," for its enthusiasm and boundless high-octane energy. Whenever we pulled up in our Fiat Sport it ran and jumped inside, mewing happily, tail as straight as a radio antenna. When I took a nap in the garden after an alfresco lunch beneath the trees, Piccola Macchina curled up at my feet.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the nearby village of Castellina was fought over by both Florence and Siena as a strategic outpost linking the Arno and Elsa river valleys. The walls surrounding the center castle were built by the Florentines during their rule in the 15th century. The Sienese ran the place from 1478 until their fall in 1555.

Castellina looks much the same as it did then. Houses were built into the defensive walls, where laundry now flaps in the breeze, and pocket gardens of vegetables and geraniums are tucked behind iron fences. Ancient rivalries remain, however. The natives proudly proclaim their local dialect as Florentine and not Sienese.

My husband was content to spend our two weeks acting like the landed gentry, but I wanted to get closer to the local cultura. I wanted a job in the vineyards working the crush.

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