Burt Wolf's Menu: Show-Siena, Italy - #101

For over a thousand years, Siena has been a center of Italian civilization.  It’s the place to take a look at the landscapes behind the great paintings of the Renaissance... to taste the foods that are basic to the nation’s history... to discover the real story behind the wines of Chianti.  And see a horse race that’s been going on for 700 years.  So join me in Siena, Italy for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

During the past 3,000 years hundreds of different ethnic groups have immigrated to the peninsula that is presently called Italy.  Each immigration made some contribution to the cooking of the land but there were three groups that set the foundations which eventually became what we now call Italian cooking. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The three groups were the Greeks, the Saracens, and the Etruscans. The Greeks and the Saracens influenced the cooking of the south.  The Greeks arrived during the time of ancient Greece and set the base for all southern cooking.  The Saracens popped in around 700 A.D. and superimposed a whole bunch of ideas on top of the Greek base. The north was controlled by the Etruscans.  Nobody’s exactly sure when the Etruscans arrived or where they came from, but the general theory is they came from somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean area, and they arrived somewhere in the 1300s B.C., so they were here very early.  They controlled the north, and the center of the area which they controlled eventually became known as Tuscany.

Tuscany is the heartland of Italy, the very center of its culture and tradition, both artistically and gastronomically.  Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, all came from Tuscany.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The great food writer Waverly Root believed that the heartland of a country, the place where the national essence has existed longest, was the place that spoke the purest form of the national language and cooked the purest form of the national diet, and they did that cooking in the simplest way.  No fuss, no frills.  He gave a couple of examples.  Touraine speaks the purest French and is famous for its roasted meats.  Castille speaks the purest Spanish and is famous for... its roasted meats.  Tuscany also seems to conform to the idea.   Most authorities believe that Tuscany speaks the purest Italian, and it’s also famous for its roasted, and in this case, also grilled meats.

Steak Florentine is a perfect example of the Tuscan style.  A thick slice of steak is salted and goes onto the grill.  As it reaches the desired point of doneness, a little more salt and some pepper is mixed together with olive oil.  The mixing is done with a sprig of rosemary.  The mixture is brushed onto the steak, and that’s it.  At home, Tuscans love simple food, prepared without complication.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Every time the people of wealth began to move toward a more elaborate foodstyle, the government would pass new and more restrictive laws to prevent it.  They were reshaping their food pyramid into an obelisk.  The people of Tuscany have always avoided excess, and they have an old saying that expresses that attitude:  “We were better off when we were worse off,”

During the 1500’s many new foods were brought back to Italy from the New World, including the tomato.  But it took over 200 years for the Italians to turn the tomato into what it is today.  And even with all those years, they were still the first Europeans to really consider the tomato as an edible part of their general diet.  Lucky for all of us that they did.  Different foods had different levels of success in different parts of Italy.  The tomato is the star in southern Italy but not so in the north... especially in the region of Tuscany.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The New World food that had the most influence in Tuscany was the bean.  The people of Tuscany have so many bean recipes and eat so many beans that they are sometimes called mangiafagioli, “the bean eaters.”  Now, that’s not meant as a compliment but I disagree.  Once you have tasted the bean recipes of Tuscany, to be called a mangiafagioli is a compliment, especially if you know anything about good nutrition.

This is the Tuscan city of Siena.  It is an excellent example of a city that conducted itself as an independent state, what’s called a city-state. It was this form of government that dominated the history of Tuscany for hundreds of years.  It is a city of contrast.  The city symbol is black and white.  The black represents the ancient mysteries of the town’s history, the white stands for the purity of the Virgin Mary.  Most of the buildings are made of a warm rose-colored brick, but the Cathedral is in stark stripes of black and white. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Many Italian writers have described Siena as a feminine and romantic place.  And yet, most of its history is about battles and sieges.  A lot of that warring took place with external enemies, like the dukes of Florence, and the Kings of Spain.  But a lot of it also took place right here between neighborhoods.  Historically, Siena has been divided into 17 districts, called contrade.  They were like independent cities within the big city, and there was lots of rivalry between them.  For hundreds of years, that rivalry expressed itself in physical combat.  Then in the 1200’s the city introduced a competitive horserace, in the hope that that would do away with some of the physical violence.  That race is still held every summer, it’s called the Palio, and it’s become world famous. 

Each neighborhood appoints a captain. Horses and riders are selected and the race is run around a circular plaza in the city center which is called the Piazza del Campo. The ritual around the event is extraordinary. 

The Palazza Pubblico was built in 1310, and it’s the town hall. It contains the State Archives that present a pictorial history of Siena through a series of ancient works of art.  One room contains a famous painting called The Effects Of Good And Bad Government.  It was painted in 1338 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.  The wise old man and the organized world mark the good government. Bad government is a desert created by evil powers. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I bought some of post cards of The Effects Of Good And Bad Government and I am going to send them to some people I know in Washington D.C   Just something for them to think about.

And that is Siena’s Cathedral. Its construction was started in the year 1220, and it is an amazing piece of work.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When it comes to food, Siena has all of the traditional dishes of Tuscany, but its greatest strength is in sweets.  The Saracens brought sugar to Italy and about ten minutes later, Siena had a sweet tooth. 

Its most famous example is Panforte, which means “strong bread.”  Panforte is a medieval spiced bread made from candied orange peel, lemons, almonds, hazelnuts, sugar and honey. It is made by a number of bakeries in Siena and shipped to Italian communities throughout the world. Perhaps the most famous baker of panforte is Nanini, who also has a number of retail shops throughout the town. I have eaten Panforte in Siena, New York, San Francisco, London, and Sydney, Australia.  Wherever there is an Italian community, there is Panforte.  And right next to the Panforte are Ricciarelli, little cookies that are made from almonds, eggwhite and sugar.

In the year 1314 Cardinal Riccardo Petroni ordered the construction of a Carthusian Monastery on the outskirts of the city of Siena.  The well was dug, the tower constructed and the cloister built around them.  During the Renaissance a series of galleries were added along the sides of the courtyard.  Outside the central buildings the monks set up their vineyards so they could produce wine for their services and their table.  Olive trees were planted for olives and olive oil.  Gardens were installed to produce the fruits and vegetables needed to feed the residents. Herbs were cultivated for both medical and gastronomic use.  And for hundreds of years these buildings and the lands around them functioned as an important Monastery. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   By the 20th Century, many of  the monasterial aspects of the property had disappeared, and many of the buildings had fallen into a state of disrepair.  Then in 1969 the Grossi family purchased the property with the intention of turning it into their family home.  Well, it seemed like a really good idea at the time, but as they got into the work they discovered that it was a much bigger idea than anyone had anticipated.   They did eventually restore the monastery, but not as their family home.

Instead of a home, it became a hotel, an extraordinary hotel, called CERTOSA DI MAGGIANO. And it is run by a Grossi daughter named Margherita.

MARGHERITA GROSSI:  In 1969 when we bought it, it was completely destroyed and abandoned.  And when we entered here, all the main cloister was closed.  You had no idea where the swimming pool is; it was all closed.  The main courtyard, completely closed.  But they decided to ride into this adventure and they decided -- they started working, and works went on for five years, continuously, without never stopping.  And then they realized that it was too large.  And one part they divided all into small flats and apartments in order to rent it as a residence.  Then that formula didn’t work at all, and so my mother thought, “Okay, we have such a large room, the boys and girls are to grow up, maybe they want to leave Siena, we can open some rooms to the guests.  And we turned it into a hotel practically immediately.

Across from the 800-year-old courtyard is a large library and game room.  The main dining room has a ancient chandelier and a collection of dishes designed by the architect who rebuilt the monastery.  Breakfast is served in the room that was originally the monks’ kitchen.  There’s a long open gallery that looks out on the swimming pool, and seems to be the ideal spot for lunch during the summer months.  There are only 17 rooms, and two staff members for each. Quite a place to stay in. And just as interesting to eat in.  Today its chef, Vanni Dal Pan, is making a pasta with a chicken sauce.  He starts by heating a sauté pan, adding a little olive oil, a pound of ground chicken, and a little salt and pepper.  The meat is stirred and cooked until it is brown, about four minutes.  Then in goes a cup of chopped vegetables.  It’s a third each of carrot, onion and celery.  That cooks for five minutes.  At which point Vanni adds a half cup of wine.

VANNI DAL PAN:  We put the white wine because we have white meat in the pan.  In case we had beef or other kinds of meat, we’d have to put red wine.

BURT WOLF:   Gotcha.

Next a cup of chopped tomatoes, a bay leaf, a sprig of fresh rosemary, or a half teaspoon of dried, and finally two cups of chicken broth.

VANNI DAL PAN:  And then we let it cook for one hour, one hour and a half, until the tomato gets melted, you know, makes altogether with the sauce.  And we are ready to address our noodles.

While the sauce is cooking the pasta is prepared.  Now, Vanni makes his own fresh pasta because Italian chefs and home cooks of distinction do that sort of thing.  But I want you to know that there are many decent and honest people who are valuable members of the community and actually buy fresh pasta already made.  And I, for one, support their freedom of choice.  When the pasta is ready it goes into a pot of boiling water and cooks for a few minutes.  Then it’s drained from the water and goes into the sauce... with a little of the water it was cooked in.  The bay leaf comes out... and the sauce and the pasta are mixed together. Some freshly grated parmesan cheese is added and the dish is ready to serve.

The first time I visited Certosa and Vanni cooked for me, the meal that he made started with that pasta, then a wonderful dish of chicken with mustard sauce, and for dessert he served this pear tart. And it was that meal that made me want to cook with him.  So, here is his pear tart.  A pear is peeled, cored, quartered and cut into thin slices.  The pear slices are sautéed in two tablespoons of butter until the edges start to turn brown... that’s about four minutes.  Then in goes a quarter cup of red wine.  Two minutes of cooking and the pears are set aside to cool.  A standard pie dough is rolled out... and used to line an individual-sized tart pan.  If you use one with a removable bottom, in the end, life will be easier.  A nine-ince diameter pan also simplifies things.  Two tablespoons of pastry cream are smoothed out onto the dough.  A piece of pound cake about a half inch thick is cut into a round that will fit into the center of the tart and placed on top of the pastry cream.  The pear slices go onto the pound cake.  A second piece of dough is rolled out and made into a top crust.  A little of the extra dough is cut into small heart shapes and placed on top for decoration.  Finally a beaten egg is painted on, to give a deep color to the finished pie and a crispness to the crust.  Twelve minutes in a 350 degree oven and the tart is ready.  A little plum sauce goes onto a plate... the tart... a scoop of peach ice cream and a dusting of powdered sugar.  While we’re looking at this tart I would like to remind all of us that there are no good foods and there are no bad foods.  There are only inappropriate amounts.  A half portion of this will be just fine.

Starting just below the city of Florence and running south to just above the city of Siena is an ancient district known as Chianti. For centuries the people of Florence battled against the citizens of Siena for control of this area.  During the 1300’s the Florentines organized the Chianti League which brought the small cities of Chianti into a buffer zone designed to give Florence a shield against the regular attacks of the Sienese troops.  As you drive through Chianti, along the road that connects Siena to Florence, you can still see the fortified castles and villages on the hilltops.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In the end, Chianti’s fame as a location for battles may be short-lived in comparison to its fame as a location for bottles -- bottles of wine, that is.  We know that the ancient Etruscans made wine here as early as the ninth century B.C.  And when the Romans popped in a bit later, they considered it an important wine-producing area, too.  The local farmers by 700 A.D. were actually making a wine that they called Chianti.  And when  Cosimo dei Medici of Florence, finally defeated the Sienese armies in a famous battle of 1555, the local farmers could forget about making war and concentrate on making wine, and within a few years were exporting excellent vintages.

For many years the wicker-covered bottle of Chianti set on a red and white checked tablecloth was the symbol of the neighborhood Italian restaurant in North America.  As more and more neighborhood Italian restauants opened, Chianti produced more and more wine, until the district was on the verge of destroying its reputation for quality. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At which point the government decided to come in and solve the problems.  So the government made some rules.  Still problems.  So the government made some more rules.  But there were still problems.  So the government made some more rules, and by the 1970’s, you had some great rules, but it was almost impossible to make great wine.  So some of the wine producers in Chianti who were interested in quality decided to take matters into their own hands, or feet, as the case may be, and just make wine. 

As a general rule a bottle of Chianti that is marked Chianti Classico Riserva will be considerably better than one that is not.  And there are a whole series of wines that are made in Chianti that are excellent but do not carry the government label of Chianti.  The winemakers describe them as nome di fantasia, which means “wines with fantasy names,” and many of them are actually the best wines of Chianti.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And so, I would like to propose a small toast to the English philospher John Locke, who said that in many cases, not all, but many... the government that governs least is the government that governs best.

One of the winemakers who decided to make the very best wine possible was Fabrizio Bianchi.  Fabrizio’s family is famous in the textile business, and he has been an active member of the firm for many years.  As a matter of fact, he’s the President.  But he has always believed that the same skills that are used to blend together various colors and textures into fabrics would lend themselves to making great wine.  And so in 1962 he purchased an estate in Tuscany, just north of Siena, and decided to try and prove his point.  It’s quite a place.  The main building is a villa from the 1700’s... there are almost 200 acres of vineyards... a road built by the ancient Romans... stands of cypress, and an orchard of olive trees.  The property was known as Monsanto after the district that it occupied.  Today, Monsanto is known as the name of one of the most respected wines to come out of the Chianti region. 

But in addition to the story of wine, there is also an unusual story of love.  Just after she graduated from the University of Milano law school, Fabrizio’s daughter Laura realized that she preferred fermentation to litigation. So she came down to work in the family winery.  She also fell in love with the son of another winemaker in the neighborhood.  When they began to talk about getting married they decided that the real test of their relationship would be to try and produce a wine together, a wine that they both liked.  When they finally finished making their wine, Laura felt that the wine would be perfect for drinking at a wedding and yet it would have the capacity to age well for a long time.  And that was enough for her to say “yes”.  Today Laura is taking me on a tour of her vineyards and I am taking the next generation of Bianchi winemakers for a little fresh air.

LAURA BIANCHI:  ...and we are doing harvest, and we have to decide if it’s ready to pick. 

BURT WOLF:   How do you decide when it’s ready to pick?

LAURA BIANCHI:  Well, there is a scientific system; we use this instrument.  We take some berries, and the juice [is] put here... we close, we look inside, and this says how much sugar there is inside of the branch, and so how much alcohol there will be in the wine.

BURT WOLF:    Oh yes, I see a dark line across the numbers.


BURT WOLF:   How much alcohol do you usually like?

LAURA BIANCHI:  Uh, thirteen, thirteen-point-five.

BURT WOLF:   Lots of science.

LAURA BIANCHI:  Yeah.  But there is also another, simple method.  We take some berries, the same berries -- [pops grape into her mouth]  Just ready to pick.

BURT WOLF:   (Laughing)  I could learn that system!  Wonderful.

All too often people who are serious about wine forget that wine is not really made for professional tasting but as something for families to drink with meals.  Fortunately, that is a concept which is never lost in the Monsanto Villa.  Laura’s mother Julianna is a great cook and today she is preparing a traditional Tuscan soup called Ribollita. She starts her preparation by mincing half a red onion.  Then a leek is cut into small pieces.  If leeks are not easily available you can substitute a white onion.  The leek and the onion go into a stock pot followed by a quarter of a cup of olive oil.  The ingredients are stirred together and the pot goes over a medium flame.  That cooks for a few minutes while a carrot is cut into small cubes and added to the pot.  Then a cup of chopped celery goes in.  A cup of chopped cabbage.  In this case it is Savoy cabbage and if you can get that in your market... great.  It adds an authentic flavor to the dish.  Next a cup of chopped Swiss chard or spinach.  A cup of zucchini that’s been cut into small pieces.  A peeled, cubed potato.  Five minutes of cooking and stirring and in go two cups of pureed tomatoes.  While that’s simmering three cups of precooked white beans are pureed and added in. Finally, a little salt and pepper and  water.  Add enough water to cover the vegetables and then add the same amount of water again.  Three hours of simmering over a low flame and the ribollita is ready.  However, since ribollita mean “reboiled,” the dish is usually not served until the next day.  At which point, a bread with a hard crust is cut into slices and used to line the bottom of a serving bowl.  The soup is reboiled and ladled over the bread and a few drops of oil are drizzled on top.  This is Tuscan home cooking at its best.

For a second course, Juliana is making a spinach dumpling called strozzapreti.  Four cups of fresh spinach are cooked in boiling water, after which all the water is squeezed out, and the spinach coarsely chopped. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This piece of equipment is called a mezzaluna.  It means “half-moon,” and the name is chosen because of the shape.  It’s used instead of a chef’s knife to do chopping, and it’s done either straight up and down or in a rocking motion.  So if you’re afraid to use a large chef’s knife, you feel it’s inconvenient, this is a great substitution.

Next the spinach goes into a sauce pan where it is heated and stirred and dried out a little more.  Then the spinach is transferred to a bowl and a cup of ricotta cheese is blended in.  A quarter of a cup of flour... one egg yolk... are added, plus a quarter of a cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese.  A little nutmeg and a lot of mixing.  When all the ingredients are well blended, the mixture is formed into little cylinders that are about one inch in diameter and about three inches in length.  The shaping is done on a well-floured board.  When all the mixture has been formed, the cylinders are gently set into boiling water.  They will start out by sinking to the bottom but after about two minutes of cooking they will come up to the top.  At which point they are fully cooked.  Then they come out of the water and go onto a serving plate.  Three are considered a proper serving for one person.  A little tomato sauce goes on top, followed by a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s our report from Tuscany -- a three thousand year history of great food and wine.  I hope you’ll join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.