Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Vacation in Rural Tuscany

We just returned from a vacation in Italy with all of my family. All my family live in urban and suburban settings so a villa in the middle of rural Tuscany was magical. For us, it was magical because it was Italian and had beautiful views, but really there were so many parts that just seemed familiar: the tractors driving up and down the dirt paths to the surrounding farms, the logging operation down the road, the roosters crowing, the vineyard at the top of the hill. Heck, we could have been at our place, except for the language and the euros. Oh, yeah, and the villa!

Okay, so the villa was originally built in the 1700s, but our place, while not that old, was the first house up the Honey Grove Creek valley (if you totally ignore any native American claim to the area). It's nothing you can really brag about, though, to an Italian. We don't really 'do' history the way they do.

The villa was built of stone on the side of a steep hill. Makes me tired just to think of how this was accomplished. Of course, at some point it was abandoned and then remodeled by a zealous American wanting to have his Tuscan house in the sun. The place was meticulously restored making it light and cool and airy, even in the heat of August. I saw wood stoves in many of the rooms and wondered if it was also light and cool and airy in the winter! Probably a lot of work to heat...and a lot of wood.

Greg had a mission for this trip: to hunt down the truth about Pecorino (sheep)cheese, a specialty of the region. You can find pecorino in any supermarket or small market because it is the cheese of Tuscany. What was funny? We never saw any sheep on our entire visit. They must have been hiding on the tops of the high hills all around us or in the bottom of the deep ravines...or in Switzerland.

Did I mention that this villa had great views because we were on the top of one of those hills without sheep?! Did I mention the driving? I will never complain about narrow or twisty roads again. We had to honk around corners driving up to our place and if you weren't the first to honk you had to back up until there was a pullout with just enough space for two cars to pass. Honestly, I closed my eyes (yup, even as the driver) and hoped the Italians knew what they were doing because I hadn't bought the extra insurance on the Alfa Romero we were renting, even though I tried.

Back to the cheese. Once we had discovered that pecorino cheese is rather like cheddar in Vermont, we tried to track down a man we had been told was making it locally. Unfortunately, both the information and the directions were a little vague. "Go to the village that is just above this village and you will find him." We found the village, and the only two people around who were sitting over an ice cream (probably the only two people because siesta wasn't over yet - another problem for Americans to get used to). "Sure, Simon, makes good cheese," but we had just missed him by 10 minutes and he had probably gone off to drink for the rest of the afternoon, so there would be no cheese making that day. It was like sending someone to the Banton's down the road here in Alsea because Alma makes great refrigerator pickles...but not for anyone's consumption other than her family. Oh, well.

With a mathematical and practical reality check on what it takes to go into cheese production in the States, we soon crossed the idea off our list of future Leaping Lamb Farm business vwntures, even thought the thought of fresh cheese on the table was appealing. The rest of our stay was filled with trips into history and walks up the country roads.

Rural Italy wasn't that different from rural America, except for one idea that Greg has always appreciated; that would be nap time. As frustrating as some things are to do in Italy, no one really seems to care too much. I think it's the naps - the Mediterranean solution to all the hard stuff. Naps might be something we in America should embrace just a little more, especially now. It's like I always told our girls when they were away from home and out of their element. If things seem particularly bad, take a nap because when you wake up there will be a solution waiting for you.

The final lesson from Italy: don't plan to do anything between noon and three o'clock because everything is closed. It's nap time.

Photo: Villa Fronzola outside of Bagni di Lucca, Italy

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