‘This is peposo’, Alfredo says with a grin. ‘Manzo’. Then it’s my turn to grin. Beef. We don’t eat a lot of meat at home, and that’s fine by me.
When we do though, it’s usually pork, which even though Sarah Wilson and National Geographic say are good for you, has just never been my thing. Beef though, I do miss.
Rather than driving, we walked up the hill from where we’d parked, in Greve in Chianti, to arrive at Podere Somigli di Correani Lorenzo. Only the third day of spring, it was unseasonsally warm – or maybe I’d just exhausted my tolerance for heat and sun after spending summer in Australia. We had only been back for five weeks of Tuscan winter and managed to escape the worst of the humid cold and rain. Though likely unremarkable for someone who grew up with it, the change of the seasons still fascinates me: the sudden appearance of butterflies; the rosemary flowering purple, the tiny green buds and early pink flowers on the cherry trees. Huge bumblebees buzz around.
There’s also an immediate change in the pace of life – a sense of momentum building. The day after the equinox, I walked down the street darting around my elderly neighbours, each carrying robust amounts of plant cuttings. My mother-in-law too had spent a few hours in the garden on the weekend, chopping and trimming and cleaning. It’s waking-up, coming out of dormancy, especially given much of the work in the region is seasonal. Many people make the majority of their living during the summer months.
My sister calls during the drive – which alone is worth doing for the views. She is making pizzas. ‘Where are you?’ she asks.
‘In the heart of Chianti,’ my husband says, smiling sideways at me, and I almost feel guilty telling her.
The peposo is the third course. The first was crostini with kale that literally melted as I put it in my mouth, and liver pate. Then pappardelle with a rabbit sauce for primi. I always feel awkward, like I’m grabbing at adjectives, when I describe food, but here are a few: peppery, chunky, robust. It tastes like it hasn’t been rushed; like it’s been given love and attention during the process of kitchen alchemy.
The wine is Chianti Classico. Not to be confused with other types of Chianti wine, the Classico label is applied to wine from a more restricted area of production.
It is governed by a strict set of rules around both production and distribution, something we discover when we move (easily) on to our second bottle. While the first is a 2016 Classico, the second is from 2017, and we are only the second people to drink it because of a specific waiting period that applies to the classici, Alfredo explains.
His wife Loretta appears with mashed potato to go alongside the peposo.
‘This dish, it is an old dish,’ he says, speaking Italian to us. ‘The workers used to make it, the ones who made mattoni (I look quizzically at my husband – ‘bricks’ he says), they’d use the ovens from making the mattoni while they were still hot. It was a cheap cut they would use, so they would put half a litre of wine with it, then all the vegetables –‘
Loretta is not as outgoing as her Florentine artist husband, but here she speaks up, still wielding the plate of potatoes, her red drop earrings flinging around.
‘Not all the vegetables,’ she corrects him. ‘Aglio…e cipolla. Cucina povera.’ Garlic and onion. Traditional no-frills Tuscan fare. We nod. Then dive in. And it is delicious. I wonder out loud whether the whole family is eating this, and I suspect the answer is yes.
We could see the farm while we were wandering up the hill, but we could also hear the voices of kids and I’d been waiting to see them appear at some stage.
The Azienda Agricola is a four-person operation, as Alfredo had explained to us while giving us a tour of the cantina where the wine is bottled. His father-in-law, given the option, had taken early retirement.
‘In those times, everyone was moving off the land, into the city,’ Alfredo says. ‘Instead, my father-in-law did the opposite.’ And in doing so, got the kind of deal on a parcel of spectacular land that none of us is likely to see again. The family also runs some accommodation from the farm, alongside the wine and oil production, sales and tasting, cooking and art lessons and lunch and dinner by appointment.
In addition to Alfredo and Loretta, their son Lorenzo and his wife Elena also work at the property. Their children, the ones I could hear while we were wandering up the hill, had disappeared by the time we got there but emerged a couple of hours later to play on the lawn.
The arrangement has worked well for Alfredo, who trained as an artist before taking another job to making a living, developing his skills whenever he could, tucked away in a tiny studio in the home he shared with Loretta, near Florence. The studio he has at the farm is crammed with an explosion of canvasses, pencils, pens, paints, sketches, and stuffed bookcase running along the wall. An ashtray sits on one of the benches. He shows us some canvasses that will form part of an exhibition being held on April 6, a pilot project run by the local council encompassing an 8km walk through art installations and food tastings.
It feels like dining in someone’s backyard: the kids’ toys are gathered in a corner and their little clothes hang on a line. We are the only guests – which makes the already-exceptional hospitality almost embarrassing. From our table in the sun, next to a vine, we can look across the valley and over to the ancient village of Montefioralle, recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, and still enclosed by its defensive walls.
The meal closes with a little budino – pudding, and a generous glass of vin santo. Someone has worked out that it’s my birthday, and a pink candle has been planted in the dessert.
It has been nearly three hours we’ve been sitting here. The littlest of the children has procured some scissors, and started trimming not just the grass but the plants too. His mother Elena wanders out. We take this as our cue to keep walking, on to Montefioralle, but we know we’ll be back. Next time, with the car though, so we can take a little piece of this precious place home with us, in the form of its oil and wine.