Archive for November, 2003

Florence – The Secret Passage

Sunday, November 23rd, 2003

Florence is a city rich in history, but also one involved in centuries of conflict. Cities and factions fought ruthlessly to secure power and wealth. Beginning in the 15th century the Medici family ruled Florence, and held almost continuous control for three hundred years. During the Renaissance period of the 16th century, Florence prospered under the astute leadership of Cosimo I. In 1540, Cosimo moved from the Medici Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio. Shortly thereafter the Uffizi was constructed to provide a suite of offices for Cosimo. Around the same time, in 1550, the Medici family purchased the Pitti Palace, which became a main residence for the family.

As we visit Florence and see these magnificent palaces, and admire the work of Michelangelo, Donatello and Botticelli we easily forget the turmoil that took place 500 years ago. So while the Medici family were erecting buildings and collecting art, they were also aware of the dangers all their wealth and power posed to them. Therefore, in 1565, Cosimo I had Giorgio Vasari erect a corridor that connected Palazzo Vecchio and the Pitti Palace via the Uffizi. This “secret passage”, that enabled the Medici family to walk between their residences without armed guard, is called the Vasari Corridor. In addition to being a safe passageway, it also served as a place for the Medici to display their artwork.

After many visits to Florence, I felt I knew the city quite well. Needless to say I was speechless after learning that this passageway exists. Among the artwork on the top floor of the Uffizi is a non-descript locked door that looks like the entrance to a broom closet. This is the entrance to the Vasari Corridor heading toward the Arno. This elevated passage crosses the Arno at the Ponte Vecchio atop the eastern side of the bridge. Prior to arriving at the Pitti Palace, this corridor passes the Santa Felicita Church; and in fact, there is a door to enter the choir loft of the church. The Medici family could attend services at the church, with only the priest knowing they were there. Traveling this corridor is extraordinary; it makes it feel like you are a visiting head of state being shown a secret part of history

The Vasari Corridor is fascinating just in a structural sense; however, it is also lined with magnificent artwork. There is a Picture Gallery depicting works mostly from the 17th & 18th centuries. There is also a section of self-portraits including most of the leading Florentine painters; but also some very notable non-Italian artists including: Rubens, Rembrandt, van Dyke and Velazquez.

When traveling, there is always so much to do and never enough time. But hopefully, you will be able to visit the Vasari Corridor on your next trip to Florence.

Wine of the Month: Fox Creek JSM Shiraz Cabernet Franc 2001 ($20)

Sunday, November 23rd, 2003

Fox Creek is an Australian winery located in the McLaren Vale region. JSM is a blend of Shiraz (70%), Cabernet Franc (20%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%). The wine has a deep plum color and a bouquet of cherries and spice. The Cabernets add tannin to the blend, providing good backbone to support the fruit of the Shiraz. The wine is medium to full bodied, and has layers of cherries, blackberries, cedar, pepper and spice. JSM can be cellared for a few years, but is drinking well today.

Il Borghetto

Sunday, November 23rd, 2003

Frances Mayes heightened everyone’s interest in Tuscany with her book “Under the Tuscan Sun”. She eloquently described the beauty of the rolling countryside, but more importantly, she illustrated how the local people make Tuscany the special place it is. Florence and Siena are magnificent Tuscan cities, but to truly experience all Tuscany has to offer, I suggest staying in the countryside. Il Borghetto is a tiny gem located 20 minutes south of Florence, in the town of San Casciano Val di Pesa, in the northern Chianti region.

Il Borghetto is a charming country inn perched on a hill overlooking rolling hills of vineyards and cypress trees. This 74 acre estate dates back to the 15th century, however a massive renovation has transformed the property into a tranquil oasis. The stone buildings are painted in a typical ochre color with terracotta roofs. The rooms are all tastefully decorated with local antiques and fine linens. There are 3 double rooms, and 6 suites of varying sizes with spacious sitting rooms and kitchens. The property is lined with vineyards, olive groves, vegetable gardens and a magnificent pool.

While strolling the grounds, passing pomegranate trees and reflecting pools, I came across an Etruscian tomb dating back to 650 BC. Every step through these hills is a journey through history.

Outside the main building is a stone terrace with majestic views of the Tuscan countryside. A full breakfast is served here. Lunch and dinner are typically not served because guests are usually off exploring, but the kitchen can accommodate requests. We had the pleasure of eating a magnificent meal here that included stuffed zucchini flowers that were exquisite and a delicious lasagna. Il Borghetto also offers cooking classes, so you too can learn how to master Tuscan cuisine.

Il Borghetto is not just a country inn, but also a farm. The property includes 15 acres of vineyards growing Merlot, Cabernet and Sangiovese. They harvested their first vintage of Merlot this year. Rows of olive trees cover the grounds, a total of 25 acres. Three types of olives are grown: Pendolino, Leccino, and Frantoiano; and they are blended to produce a first rate extra virgin olive oil. Ask the kitchen for a taste.

Exploring the countryside is part of the joy of Tuscany. There are dozens of hill towns to visit, each with something special to offer. Cortona, Montepulciano, Pienza and San Gimignano are just a few.

But let’s not forget about the wine. Tuscany is one of the great wine regions of the world. Brunello di Montalcino is perhaps the most prestigious wine of the region, while Chianti is the wine most often associated with Tuscany. There’s also a new kid on the block, the Super Tuscan, that incorporates different grapes and new production techniques that have captured the world’s attention. Antinori, one of the premier wine producers, has been very successful with Super Tuscans. Tignanello, one of it’s best, is harvested just 5 minutes from Il Borghetto. So get out your calendar and book a trip to eat, drink and explore.

What to Cook Now… Squash

Sunday, November 23rd, 2003

As Thanksgiving approaches, pumpkins are everywhere. However there are a group of vegetables that grow along side pumpkins that demand your attention…the winter squash. There are dozens of winter squash varieties, and a few of the more common ones are acorn, butternut, delicata and hubbard.

Squash is a vegetable native to North America, and perhaps that’s why it is included in so many traditional Thanksgiving feasts. Squash is an excellent source of beta-carotene, potassium and vitamin c; but I suggest you try them because they taste good. Squash come in different shapes, sizes and colors, but they all have a hard exterior. In this case, the shell is an advantage since it extends the shelf life several months.

Wouldn’t you like an alternative to that potato you eat four days a week? Try an acorn squash. It’s as easy to cook as a potato. Split the squash in half and remove the seeds, then place flesh side down on aluminum foil and place in a 350 degree oven. After 25 minutes turn squash, flesh side up, add a little butter, sprinkle with cinnamon, and drizzle with a little honey. Return to the oven and bake until tender, about 20 – 30 minutes. Voila.

Squash can be much more versatile than the above recipe suggests. It can be baked, pureed, stuffed into a ravioli, added to a soup or incorporated into a risotto. You may be surprised to know that butternut squash is often substituted for the pumpkin in your pumpkin pie.

It’s inspiring how many ways you can prepare squash and pumpkin; but I found the best ever at a restaurant the other night: pumpkin pizza. It was spectacular, and my hats off to the chefs at Gonzo in NYC. I’ll ask for the recipe during my next visit.

Worth seeking out…

Sunday, November 23rd, 2003
  • Tellicherry peppercorns from India have so much flavor compared with the ground peppers offered at the supermarket. Available at www.penzeyspice.com.
  • White Icicle Radishes look like albino carrots, but taste like a mellow radish. These are wonderful for crudités or salads. Available at many farm stands in the fall.
  • Cavatelli is a short, solid pasta that goes well with a hearty sauce or ragu. Borgatti’s Pasta makes fresh cavatelli daily. 632 E 187Street, Bronx, NY