On the weekend of October 25 and 26, the deGustiBooks wine and food event was held at an old fortress in the center of Florence, the Fortezza di Basso, and Pat (“the almost-sommelier”), Laura (“from Vicenza,” Cheryl’s friend who lives here) and I made plans to get together and go. Laura arranged to leave school a little earlier on Friday, taking the train south to Florence, where I met her at the station. Pat did all the planning for us, looking through the offerings and choosing the ones that might be the best suited for us. As for my part, I got a bed ready for Laura and did the shopping for our meals that weekend, and we were all set.
Walking over to the Fortezza, Laura and I stopped at a trattoria along the way, and got a waitress with a real attitude problem. Before we had ordered, she had already rolled her eyes at Laura, and was rude every time she made contact, or was avoiding us and only serving other patrons. Laura was ready to walk out and just pay for the bread and water, but we managed to get through our order without making a scene. It was a pleasure to get out of there and be on our way.
When we met Pat at the Fortezza, we walked in through the fortress walls to the open area inside, where there were many small booths set up for food specialties and beer or wine.
One that caught my eye right away was making a type of chestnut pancakes (“necci”) in cast iron paddles, with the paddle buttered, covered with batter, and then a second paddle was placed on the top of the batter. The whole thing was placed over a burner, turned over to cook the other side after about a minute, and then the hot “pancakes” were served either as is, or rolled up around what looked like a ricotta filling, or filled with Nutella, a chocolate and hazelnut spread. I’m certain these were made from castagne, the chestnuts, based on the color of the batter, but I didn’t get a chance to try one. There was a long line, though, to buy them.
Another booth nearby was selling bouquets and braids of red and yellow peppers, and was a colorful display, although meant for decoration, not consumption. The woman there was making new bouquets as fast as she sold them, but her booth was very colorful to see.
Inside the main hall for the wine and food events, we paid our 6 Euros and got a wine glass for tasting different wines, a ticket for one glass of wine from a premium wine tasting menu, and a pouch on a cord to hold our wine glass around our neck.
Just beyond the cashier was the kid section, where the organizers had arranged activities for kids to keep them busy while their parents tasted wines and foods around the building. The kids were given chef’s paper hats, to keep with the food theme, and the main attraction for many of the kids was the miniature kitchen and kitchen tools put there for them to use in play.
Laura and I used our ticket to wet our wine glasses and taste our first wine, with about 200 premium wines at a wine bar set up inside, and Pat went to sign us up for the events that she had chosen for us. Laura and I were probably agreeable to almost any wine tasting choices, but Pat had particular events and groupings of wines that she was trying to catch, so we all went along for the ride.
Around the sides of the exhibition building, many vendors were giving away free samples of regional specialty foods that they were promoting, or there were elaborate displays and the foods were for sale. No matter where we turned, there were volumes of printed promotional materials to take away, and we soon had our hands full of maps of wine producing areas, recipes, suggested pairings of foods and wine, and advertising for food products.
Two men were slicing up a special type of salami made from the cinta sinese (a special breed of pig, highly prized for it’s flavor), and we all managed to score a taste or two.
From there, we pasted on our first number (#21, red letters on a white sticker) and sat down in the special tasting area for a comparative tasting of Chianti classico wines. The bottles were opened and poured, and we each got a glass of wine, followed by a discussion of the particular qualities of the wine, and then a chance to either pour out the wine or finish the glass before the next wine was poured and tasted.
With Pat along, who knows quite a bit more than we two rookies, there was a new dimension added when she told us about the winery or the mix of grapes, or some particular attributes of the wine. We paced ourselves, knowing that we had more wines coming and more wine tastings coming, but all of the ones we tasted were way better than average, and we didn’t pour out much wine.
OK, I didn’t pour out ANYTHING! Our area was marked with table tent signs designating the area for the scheduled tastings, so only the people wearing the correct number received the wine samples, and the number of participants was limited (Pat had signed us up for all the events as soon as she arrived, for that very reason.)
Next, after a break to walk around, we had a “blind tasting.” The wine bottles were wrapped in foil, so that none of the information about the wine and the producer was available, and then we were given black glasses so that the color characteristics could not be determined. The tasting was overseen by Andrea Gori, a sommelier 2.0 (Second degree? C average? Not even felt on the Richter scale?), and he is well-known in the Florence area. He asked questions about our guesses of the percentages of sangiovese, cabernet, and merlot grapes in each of the mixes, based on our tastings, and he took notes of our votes. After we all tasted a few wines in this group, he revealed the wines and their grape content, and only people with training like Pat had any notes to fall back on and say, “Nailed that one!” I just drank some very nice wines, poured none out, and smiled with a warmly contented smile. It is clear to me that I have very little education regarding wines, and no basis for judging them, except for what I enjoy drinking personally.
I looked at the next table to see a young boy who took the “blind tasting” more literally than most, since he closed his eyes and went to sleep for the entire event, safe in his father’s arms. Maybe he had tasted some of the wines earlier. Either way, his father just hoisted the wine glass over his son, and participated with us.
Next, Pat had signed us up for a cooking demonstration, with a young chef from Florence, Marco Stabile. He began with a saddle of rabbit, and filleted off the meat across the lower back. He laid “lardo” strips across the inside, put oven-dried tomato slices on top, then rolled the whole thing into a small salami shape, wrapped first in plastic wrap and then foil. These he dropped into simmering water, and cooked them through, then put them into the refrigerator to cool and set. While those were cooling, he cooked chicken livers with shallots, pureed them into a pate, and piped the mix into little plastic collars about an inch in diameter, and then put them into the refrigerator. Back out came the rabbit rolls, sliced and skewered with a stick, then dipped in sugar and caramelized on each side in a fry pan with olive oil before being served warm. The pate came out, too, and had the collars removed.
He put a small breadstick into each one, rolled the sides in crushed licorice, and we each had two appetizers to taste (if we were wearing the correct number on our lapel, this time #24). Both were unexpectedly good, but a little less licorice with my liver, next time, please! It was a good pairing, but I think haste lent itself to excess, in that case.
We shared our table with Andrea Gori, the sommelier, but he was intent on preparations for his next appearance, so we never spoke a word to him.
We were having a fun time, looking around the food exhibits and playing around with tasting wines, and Pat was taking notes into her little notebook, having a future reference in case she ran into these wines again as a sommelier.
We walked back to my flat together, as night was falling, and I pulled out the cheeses and crostini, plus some apples, grapes and pears to complement the cheeses. Meanwhile, I managed to scrape together the leftovers from the dinner I had served Laura the night before, and we had a big plate of small bites to share for dinner, plus a big salad. One of the highlights, as it had been the night before with Laura, were the chicken breasts, breaded in flour and fennel pollen. With Cheryl, I had discovered that the little hardware/housewares store around the corner carried “finocchio selvatico in fiore,” which means “wild fennel in flower,” and I have been going back for more supplies ever since. At 148 Euros/kilo, we just hand over 10 or 20 Euros, and say, “That much.” It’s so potent that a little is all that’s needed, and we first heard about fennel pollen from Dario, the butcher, who uses it on his arista (roasted meats).
Laura and I walked Pat back to her car at the Fortezza, and came home through all the discoteques inside the Fortezza that were blaring music at that hour. Young people were just beginning to gather, but the musicians were already hooked up and playing loud, so we had a glimpse of the nightlife as we passed through, complete with light shows.
The next day, Pat suggested she meet us on the east side of Florence, and take us south to the Hotel Relais, where a special tasting was offered in the morning. Our plan was to go there to start the day, and end up at the Fortezza for the second day of events there. Laura and I walked through the Piazza Ciompi, and lucked into the monthly antiques market in the streets, but didn’t see much we were interested in, until Laura scored two new cashmere sweaters for 15 Euros each.
I was busy watching the VERY tall street musician, playing the accordion, and not always to appreciative audiences. We got to Piazza Beccaria, where we were to meet Pat, and had a coffee and snacks while we waited.
Off on the autostrada, a toll highway that required Pat to take a ticket when entering and pay the cashier when exiting, we were at the Hotel Relais in about 20 minutes, but found that we were 2 hours early. Rather than waiting around for that long, we were back on the autostrada and off for the Fortezza. Pat was disappointed that we missed a great collection of wines to taste, but we knew there were more waiting for us at the Fortezza.
We arrived to our first event (this time Laura and I made sure that Pat’s way was paid, since she had paid for everything the first day) to see women preparing plates of antipasti to pair with the wines for the first tasting.
In no time, we had a large wooden platter with globs of ripe gorgonzola, two kinds of salami, crostini with ragu, and crostini with liver pate. Soon the wines followed, and we had a tasting that was centered around pairings of food flavors and wine.
Andrea Gori was back on stage, sniffing the wines and pouring them, too. He has an easy way of being in front of crowds, and is very secure in his knowledge of wines and ability to handle questions from the people tasting the wines.
We went off for a break, all our separate ways, to look around the food offerings in the building or to see the books for sale. This exposition was sponsored by deGustiBooks, and the center of the building was filled with tables of books (and cookbooks) promoted by that company. I picked up an inexpensive book on antipasti, for 2.5 Euros, and then went around to see more of the booths of food and specialty items.
I came across a chocolate booth, and was impressed with the resemblance of the chocolates to things such as wrenches (chocolate tools, coated with a silvery coating) and cameras and kitchen implements.
There were jams and chutneys and sauces, and I walked away from a tasting of polenta mix with black truffles and figured my palate was wrecked for anything but black truffles for the rest of the day—strong stuff! I could still taste truffles for at least two hours.
With time to kill before the next event, I wandered out to other buildings in the Fortezza, where “creativity” was the theme, but in graphic design, cartoons, artwork, and even airbrush designs on a scooter! This scooter was decorated with the red fleur di lis, symbol of Florence, and David, with more landmarks on the sides (the Duomo) and back fenders. The demonstration was for an airbrush brand, but the scooter was certainly a standout covered with local iconic symbols.
In heading back to the main building, I noticed a somewhat-familiar book cover—Eat, Pray, Love had been transformed to Mangia, Prega, Ama. I suppose without Oprah to promote it, the book is not as popular here as in the US, but at least I noticed it.
Back in the building, still killing time, I got a chance to try the flasks set up to demonstrate the fragrances that are evident in wines: the glass globes contained samples of berries and cherries, fruits, earthy smells, vanilla and cinnamon, and a wide variety of the complex components of the “nose” of a wine. People were lined up to have a turn, and I took mine, too.
We enjoyed one last tasting of wines from the Soave region, all white wines, and then got back to Andrea Gori’s next offering, which was a pairing of wines with music. I could have guessed that heavy red wines were intended for serious music, like opera, and the lighter, sillier music paired better with white wines. It seemed a little silly to watch and hear, but there was wine involved, and I drank every drop. It was fun, if not particularly serious—to me, at least.
On my way out, I noticed the pattern made by the stairway up to another nearby building, and took this shot at twilight. With all the different colors of light, and the people on the diagonal, it just made an interesting shot, I thought. Totally without purpose, but interesting.
Laura ran for her train (we had checked in her bags earlier at the station), and Pat and I returned to the San Ambrogio market area to look for a restaurant, but most were closed—it was Sunday. We finally found a wonderful little place (the Cantina Barbagianni—“owl” to us), where we were well cared for, and had a delightful dinner while Laura headed back to Vicenza before the cold that was overtaking her took hold fully. (She ended up missing the next three days of school, with the flu.) We had a wonderful “girls’ weekend” together, sampled a lot of wines and came out (even me) with a lot more information and education about what we were drinking, and good memories of the weekend.