At Home in the Heart of Italy

DavidBill and I began talking about a long and adventurous trip to Italy in 2005. We had friends who had talked about living in France for six months when they retired. Doesn’t that sound lovely, I remember saying to Bill. Me, who gets homesick when I have a particularly long stay in the bathroom. But romance can overwhelm one, can’t it?

Anyhoo, for us, it wouldn’t – couldn’t – be France. The French are too scary and I simply can’t get a grasp of their language (too many silent letters). It would have to be Italy. And it would have to be somewhere in Tuscany.

We literally began planning that very day. Looking at our financial timeline, we figured I could retire at the end of 2007. We would leave for Italy shortly after. Of course, as we began putting plans on paper, we became a bit more practical. There was no way I could be away from home for six months. Too homesick. The exchange rate in 2007-2008 was horrendous, so we wouldn’t have been able to afford six months anyway.

We started thinking about whether or not we wanted to simply be in one place the whole time or travel around. We concluded that we couldn’t be in Europe for perhaps our last time without seeing some sights. Our compromise was that we would not have much of an agenda and we would spend a leisurely amount of time at each place we visited. Oh, and we would spend two full weeks in Rome and a month in one town in Tuscany.

Honing down the town we would stay was tricky. Originally we thought perhaps Lucca. We love that walled city near Pisa. But Bill began researching on Home Away and finally proposed the town of Certaldo.

Certaldo? Never heard of it.

It’s a 10 minute drive from San Gimignano (perhaps the prettiest town in Tuscany, but I say that about all of the towns). They have a historic center. There is a train station for day trips. It’s not too far from the reasonably sizeable community of Poggibonsi. Hmmm. This could work.

Well, I won’t go into details (if you want to know about our Tuscan escapades, click here and look at July 2008), but it did, indeed, work. It worked well. We stayed just outside the town, at the no-longer-used church of San Benedetto, specifically in Crackwhat had been the priest’s house. The church had a giant crack in it, and our landlord-for-the-month – Giovanni –suggested if we sit out on our patio next to the church, we do so on the far side. He was dead serious.

The house had apparently not been leased out to others for quite some time, and when Giovanni opened the doors, I kid you not. It had to have been over 100 degrees in the house. Every window was closed. The bricks had absorbed the sun for weeks. It was hot. And there was no air conditioning.

So much for my thoughts about cooking wonderful meals in my Tuscan kitchen, at least for awhile. Too darn hot. So I asked Giovanni if there was a grill we could use. He looked very puzzled, as he spoke very little English. I said, “You know, a grill – fire to cook on.” He pointed to the fireplace in the corner. Yes, that’s the answer. I will stoke up a fire in this house that is the home of the devil.

No matter. During our first run to Poggibonsi to get food, we found, after much searching, a tiny grill. Very tiny….

Grill

It is how we cooked most of our meals while in Tuscany.

Tuscany is a farming area, and though the crops are different, it reminded me a great deal of growing up in Nebraska. The crops of course are olives and grapes with a few fields of sunflowers thrown in just to move the scenery off the “gorgeous” mark to “full out spectacular.” Here is the scene we saw from our kitchen window every morning as we prepared our coffee….

Morning

It more than made up for the heat we experienced during the day. By the way, I sort of learned how to manage the heat a bit by opening up the windows in the morning and evening and closing up the windows and blinds during the day. It became bearable. And we were in Tuscany.

I began contemplating what I could post in the way of typical Tuscan food. The first thing that came to mind was wild boar – very typical of the Tuscan area of Italy, especially in pasta sauces. I had no interest, however, in chasing down a javalina (which is the desert version of wild boar), and even if I did, I was pretty sure that our homeowners’ association would prohibit the slaughter of animals in our backyard. At least I hope so. I will tell you, however, that wild boar is delicious.

But then I thought of another very typical Tuscan meal – bistecca fiorentina. These Tuscan steaks come from the area’s Chianina breed of cattle which are prized for their tenderness and flavor. They are basically a porterhouse steak on steroids, grilled so rare they practically jump when you put your fork into them, and finished with olive oil. They are, in a word, huge. And delicious. That’s two words.

The first time we ever ordered them, we had no clue how big they were. It was in Florence during that first trip we took to Italy, you know, the one where we shouldn’t have been let loose on our own. Up until that meal, we had made it a point to each order a pasta course and then split a meat course. We looked at the menu outside, all of course in Italian, and spotted the bistecca fiorentina. Boom.

As usual, we each ordered a pasta dish. This time, however, we decided to each order bistecca fiorentina. One for each of us. The waiter didn’t say a thing. Or maybe he did in Italian and we just didn’t understand him. Whatever.

Being particularly hungry, and our pasta being particularly delicious, we ate every bite. Soon after, the waiter approached us carrying two plates, each with a porterhouse steak so big it literally was hanging off the plate. Oh oh, I thought.

I think I ate a few bites, but Bill ate the whole thing. Turns out Italians would have shared one. Who knew?

During our time in Tuscany, we cooked bistecca fiorentina a couple of times. When you go to the market, you won’t find the meat sitting on Styrofoam plates wrapped in sterile plastic. You will find the different kinds of meat sitting loose in the showcase, and you point. The chickens will have their heads still intact. The bunnies, well, the same. The steaks are cut upon order. The butcher brings out a gigantic piece of beef from which he will cut the steaks. How many do you want, he will ask, wielding his giant meat cleaver. One…….WHAP.  Two……WHAP WHAP. That quickly. I wonder how many fingers are lost each year by butchers.

We cooked bistecca fiorentina on our little grill when Bec and Terry visited us at the priest’s home……

steaks 2

Bistecca all Fiorentina, by Michael Chiarello

Ingredients

2 2-lb. porterhouse steaks, about 2 inches thick

Grey sea salt

Coarse grind black pepper

Pure olive oil

Balsamic vinegar

Process

Let the steak rest outside the refrigerator for 30 minutes before cooking. Liberally season the steak with salt and pepper, coat with olive oil and press the seasoning into the meat. Grill the steaks for about 5 – 6 min. on each side for medium rare.Move the steaks every 2 min. or so for even cooking and a crispy exterior.

Allow the steaks to rest on a carving board for at least 5 minutes.

Cut the steaks away from the bone and carve into ½ inch slices. Drizzle a little bit of balsamic vinegar over the slices.

Nana’s Notes: I used one porterhouse steak for Bill and me. It didn’t even begin to compare to porterhouse cookedthe steaks we would get in Italy, at least size-wise. Perhaps if I had gone to a butcher. Also, no balsamic vinegar finish for us. Just a little more olive oil. The key is lots of salt. Absolutely heavenly.

By the way, as you can imagine, I could go on and on and on about our experiences in Tuscany. It KILLS me to stop.

2 thoughts on “At Home in the Heart of Italy

  1. I loved reading your blog every day when you were on that trip. And we loved our visit with you in Certaldo. I’m glad you’re using this week to reminisce about your travels.

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