5 things I’ve learned about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

5 things I’ve learned about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

When I left my career as a middle school principal, I gained some immediate benefits. I traded in my neckties for t-shirts and long meetings for behind-the-scenes tours. Recently, though, I learned of another great switcheroo that came when I left my job in public education to pursue travel writing full-time: Cafeteria mini-corn dogs have been replaced with delicious Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

The Chef & The Dish

When Jenn Nicken of The Chef & The Dish asked us to take part in the complimentary cooking lesson that Ann wrote about HERE, I was definitely interested. And when she explained that all four of the recipes would feature Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, I did a happy dance.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at the store.

All my life, I’ve loved parmesan cheese. It tops pizza, spaghetti, lasagna, and even popcorn perfectly. But, as I quickly learned, our cooking experience wouldn’t be with tiny salty pellets of cheese product from a round plastic container. Instead, we’d be working with the real deal, the king of cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano. At the beginning of our cooking class with The Chef & The Dish, our chef, Paola Martinenghi, made sure we knew just how special this ingredient is.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Here are 5 things she taught us about the most delicious cheese.

1. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is NOT parmesan (it’s way better)

The world is full of cheese called parmesan. This name simply means that the cheese was made in the style of Parmigiano Reggiano. What makes Parmigiano Reggiano cheese special is that the cheese maker must follow a very specific set of rules that have been around for generations. A consortium of cheese makers governs these rules which are designed to produce a consistently high-quality product that consumers can trust.

First, the cheese can only be produced in a certain part of Italy. That region has the necessary climate to produce the perfect cheese of this style. Then, a specific process must be followed. At the end, every cheese wheel undergoes an inspection. Those that pass are marked with dots that say Parmigiano Reggiano and are branded with a seal on the rind of the wheel to show it’s authentic.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grated

A pile of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grated. Note the rind with the dots showing the cheese is authentic.

If you want to buy real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, make sure any piece you purchase still has the rind on it and that you can see the dots. Otherwise, you might well be buying an imitation. And trust me, after trying the real stuff and the pretend side-by-side, there is a difference you can clearly taste.

2. It takes a huge quantity of the right milk

All cheese starts with milk, and that’s true for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Cows that produce the milk for the cheese must live in a certain area of Italy and be grass-fed. Only. The milk they produce is used unpasteurized.

The cows are milked twice a day. The evening milking is put into copper vats, and the fat is skimmed off. The next morning’s milking is added creating a part skim, part whole milk mixture that then moves on to the cheese making process. By now, each vat has more than 260 gallons of milk, though all that milk will produce only two wheels of cheese.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese twins

Each vat of 260 gallons of milk produces only two wheels of cheese. These are called the “twins.” (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

During the cheese making process, natural ingredients are added to cause the curd of the milk to separate from the whey. This curd is then put in to molds and wrapped in a belt that leaves the distinctive Parmigiano Reggiano dot markings on the rind. The whey of the milk isn’t wasted. Instead, it’s fed to pigs. This may well be part of the reason why prosciutto di Parma is so delicious.

3. The cheese takes a swim

The next step is to put the new cheese wheels in a vat of salt water. It floats around and is turned regularly, so that the wheel can absorb salt. The cheese will spend 20 days in this magic brine.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in salt water

A worker turning wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a vat of salt water. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

4. Aging properly is key

Then, the cheese wheels are put on long wooden shelves in a large room to age. Because humidity is different from the front of the shelves to the back, the cheeses are turned regularly. According to Chef Paola, there are enough shelves to go 20 or more cheeses high meaning each row might have more than 1,000 cheese wheels aging in it.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels aging

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels aging on shelves. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

5. Then, the final exam

After one year of aging, each cheese wheel is inspected to see if it meets the requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Someone from the consortium comes and taps the wheels with a hammer, listening for imperfections. If the inspector is satisfied, the cheese wheel is branded with the seal of the consortium, and that wheel is officially Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. If it does not pass inspection, the dots are removed and the cheese is sold as plain old parmesan cheese.

Inspection of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

An expert inspects the wheel of cheese by tapping it with a hammer while listening for imperfections. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

After hearing all this, I tasted the cheese and delighted in the explosion of pure deliciousness that filled my mouth. Last summer, when we traveled to Italy, we marveled at the quality and flavor of the food everywhere we went.

Bruschetta with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Fresh bruschetta topped with thin slices of genuine Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

All over Italy, we met with wine makers, bakers, and butchers. As each explained her/his craft, we learned they take no shortcuts. They simply do things the old fashioned-way, even if it takes a little longer or costs a little more. Our experience with The Chef & The Dish reinforced this idea. Sure it might be a complicated process to make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Yes, it might take longer to produce than other mass-produced cheeses. But in the end, all of the attention to detail creates a product that is of incredibly high quality that adds so much to food. The extra effort is definitely worth it.


While our cooking experience with The Chef & The Dish was complimentary, the opinions and our newfound love for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are our own.

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The Chef & The Dish Skypes a chef right into your kitchen

The Chef & The Dish Skypes a chef right into your kitchen

The Chef & The Dish brings world-class chefs right into your kitchen and it couldn’t make me happier.

Lasting memories

I will never forget the taste of the beautifully presented, fruit covered waffle we had in Belgium or the spinach pie we learned how to make in Mykonos, Greece. If I think about it, I can almost taste the the paella Steve and I shared with our daughter, Meghan, on the square in Salamanca, Spain and the ricotta stuffed ravioli we prepared ourselves in Tuscany last summer.

A fruit covered waffle in Belgium, spinach pie in Greece, Paella in Spain, and ricotta stuffed ravioli in Tuscany.

A fruit covered waffle in Belgium, spinach pie in Greece, Paella in Spain, and ricotta stuffed ravioli in Tuscany.

Yes, I have a love affair with food. Trying new cuisine is one of my favorite things to do when we travel. And when we have the opportunity to learn how to prepare an authentic local dish, it becomes a fond and lasting memory of our time in that place.

We loved learning how to make pasta with Opera in the Kitchen while traveling through Tuscan in 2018.

We loved learning how to make pasta with Opera in the Kitchen while traveling through Tuscany in 2018.

So when we got an email from a company called The Chef & The Dish, I was instantly intrigued. The company was founded by Jenn Nicken, the former head of marketing for the entertainment division of Apple/iTunes in Canada who left to pursue her love of all things food and travel.


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Creating The Chef & The Dish

After traveling the world and tasting foods of each region, Jenn returned to Canada and put together the recipe for her own new business, The Chef & The Dish.

Jenn found her way into a chef's kitchen in Thailand and he taught her to make this colorful dish.

Jenn found her way into a chef’s kitchen in Thailand and he taught her to make this colorful dish. (Courtesy photo)

She created a company that brings world-class chefs into the home kitchens of people (like you and me) all over the world. Through the magic of the internet and video conferencing software called Skype, The Chef & The Dish connects its customers with a highly trained chef. She or he teaches you, step-by-step, how to create a specialty meal from her/his region.

The Chef & The Dish website

There are dozens of different cooking classes to choose from, including Hungarian goulash, traditional Spanish tapas, and okonomiyaki from Japan. The chefs may be home cooks, have Michelin stars or have been trained by their grandmothers. But they have all been selected for being great cooks as well as great teachers and effective communicators. And, they are fun!

We had the pleasure of taking a complimentary cooking class via Skype with Chef Paola Martinenghi who instructed us from her small village near Milan, Italy. We’ll write more on that, later.  For now, just know that she is FABULOUS!

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, and she also made us laugh.

How The Chef & The Dish works

First, let me tell you how this whole The Chef & The Dish thing works. The first step is to make sure you have a laptop or tablet (like an iPad or Samsung Galaxy). It needs sound, a built-in camera, and a high speed Internet connection. Second, you just visit The Chef & The Dish website a book a class online.

Booking a class with The Chef & The Dish is simple with easy to navigate online options.

Booking a class with The Chef & The Dish is simple with easy to navigate online options.

Cost of the classes begins at $299 for two people, which we found comparable to cooking classes we’ve taken abroad. Once they receive your booking, a kitchen assistant will contact you to set up a personal kitchen prep session. Our cooking assistant (Jenn herself) reviewed our shopping list with us, answered all our questions, and even helped us find the best camera angle for our online class.

We were fortunate that our kitchen assistant was none other then The Chef & The Dish Founder, Jenn Nicken.

We were fortunate that our kitchen assistant was none other then The Chef & The Dish Founder Jenn Nicken.

Preparing with a kitchen assistant

Before our video conference, Jenn emailed us a detailed grocery list and recommendations for kitchen supplies we’d need. She walked us through each list and even offered to call around to help us find specific ingredients for our recipes. Jenn also explained how our cooking class would work and what to expect from Paola. By the end of our video conference, we felt well-prepared for our culinary experience.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods.

Several days before our class, we did all of our grocery shopping and were easily able to find everything we needed. Next, we prepped our kitchen with all of the necessary pans and mixing bowls. We also made sure we had a bottle of Prosecco chilling in the fridge because drinking wine while cooking just seemed to make it a little more Italian.

Some of the dry ingredients we purchased for our Italian cooking class.

Some of the dry ingredients we purchased for our Italian cooking class.

On the day of our cooking class, we gathered all of our supplies in the kitchen, and set up our computer. Then, at the appropriate time and from her kitchen in Italy, Chef Paola appeared on the screen of our laptop. We were ready to begin our culinary journey!

What’s next?

Coming soon – Part two of our series on The Chef  & Dish, including all the details about what we cooked (and lots of beautiful pics). We’ll show you how we prepared four dishes, all featuring Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese! Seriously, you’re gonna wish you could taste your computer/smartphone screen.


While our cooking class with The Chef & The Dish was provided complimentary, the opinions and excitement for cooking at home are our own.

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A unique wine tasting in the woods and our stay near Montepulciano, Italy

A unique wine tasting in the woods and our stay near Montepulciano, Italy

When we went wine tasting in Tuscany (can I just interject that I’ve dreamt about saying those words for quite some time) I had no idea what to expect from our visit to the town of Montepulciano, other than we would likely be tasting Vino Nobile, the typical wine of the region.

Montepulciano, Italy

One of the beautiful views near the Podere della Bruciata vineyard.

Made largely from the Sangiovese grape, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is a full-bodied, ruby red wine and I couldn’t wait to taste it in Tuscany (there, I just had to say it again). But before our hosted tasting at Podere Della Bruciata winery, we had a little time to explore the medieval city on the hill.

Our wonderful host and driver, Massi, gave us a complimentary transfer to Montepulciano. He graciously offered to drive us right to the Piazza Grande at the very top of the hill. From there, we were able to take in the incredible views of the Tuscan countryside.

Montepulciano, Italy view

A view across the countryside from the walled city of Montepulciano, in Italy.

Steve and I spent several hours walking slowly down the hill through the narrow streets, stopping at small shops that sell everything from wine and cheese to shoes and clothing.

Our Stay at Villa Ambra

Later that afternoon, we went to the Villa Ambra hotel, whose owners had invited us for a complimentary stay and wine tasting. We got settled in the Doppia Superior room which was absolutely beautiful. The Villa Ambra is an 18-room, family owned bed and breakfast. The hard work and love that the family puts into every detail makes this an absolutely stupendous agritourism destination.

Villa Ambra guest room, Montepulciano, Italy

Our room at Villa Ambra was both clean and comfortable. In addition, it had a king-sized bed, private bathroom, and air conditioning that worked extremely well.

Our room was newly renovated. It included a comfy king bed with luxurious bedding and an artistic wall covering that made me feel truly immersed in Tuscany. We took our time settling in to our lovely accommodations and relaxing a bit before the wine tasting.

Our wine tasting in Montepulciano at Podere Della Bruciata

By late afternoon, it was time to head to the lobby to meet other guests for a tour and tasting at the family’s winery, Podere Della Bruciata. We got in vehicles and drove down the highway a bit to the vineyard entrance. We parked, and then walked down a dirt road while learning firsthand about the vines.

Podere della Bruciata vineyard, Montepulciano, Italy

Andrea explains the processes they use to grow and select grapes at their winery.

Andrea Rossi, a third-generation wine maker, was a wonderful guide and explained the processes they use to grow and select grapes for their wines. He was a great teacher, and answered all our questions along the way. As we continued our walk with him through the vineyard, I noticed the people in front of me turning off the road and following Andrea into the woods. Now you should know I’m not exactly fond of unknown nature excursions and was a little apprehensive about what was in store. Would there be more hiking? A wildlife encounter? Was I going to regret not bringing bug repellent?

Podere della bruciata wine tasting

Wine tasters head into a small clearing in some woods for the wine tasting.

Nope. We were actually being led to the site of our wine tasting. To watch a 47-second video with my reaction, click here.

Just a few steps into the woods, we found ourselves in a sort of secret hideaway. We stood in a cleared area shaded from the hot, Tuscan sun, surrounded by rock benches. In the center sat a large boulder that served as an exquisite table for our wine tasting and food pairing. It was glorious. I’ll pause here and let the photos do the talking.

Podere della Bruciata wine tasting, Montepulciano, Italy

Our hosts put out quite a spread for our wine tasting. It included bruschetta, cheeses, jams, salamis, and prosciutto.

Elisa and Andrea, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

Both friendly and hard-working, Elisa and Andrea make every guest feel special and welcomed. Their efforts made this unique wine tasting experience something we’ll never forget.

Wine tasting at Villa Ambra

Andrea explains all that went into making the wine as guests listen and savor the result in a beautiful clearing in the woods.

We enjoyed the company of the other guests in a relaxed atmosphere as we tasted a variety of wines, each paired with delicious cured meats, cheeses, and homemade jams. It was almost surreal; we were tasting wine in the woods in Tuscany. Pinch me! At the conclusion of this amazing experience, we walked back to the cars while watching the sun set over the Tuscan hills.

Podere della Bruciata wine tasting

The group of wine tasters walks along a road in the vineyard.

Our dinner at Albergo Ristorante Villa Ambra

Back at the hotel, we met up with our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband Massi the Driver, for dinner at the Albergo Ristorante Villa Ambra. Andrea helped us select two wines, one that he’d crafted and the other created by his uncle, Marzio Pagliai. Then, the family began serving us a traditional Tuscan meal that turned out to be one of the most exquisite dining experiences we had during our entire stay in Italy.

Podere Della Bruciata wine, Montepulciano

The family’s winery, Podere Della Bruciata produces several wines including, “Ermete,” a Rosso di Montepulciano (red wine from Montepulciano).

The first course was bresaola, a cured beef sliced thinly and placed atop a bed of lettuce dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

Villa Ambra bresaola, Montepulciano

Our meal started with bresaola, cured beef sliced thinly and placed atop a bed of lettuce dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

Next, came my favorite course (pasta of course) which was linguini pasta with cinghiale, otherwise known as wild boar. It was incredible. Perfectly cooked al dente noodles in a creamy, savory sauce garnished with fresh parsley. Yes, I ate all of it. Every bite. And Steve was noticably disappointed that I didn’t ask him to help finish my plate.

Pasta course, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

The pasta course: linguini pasta with cinghiale (wild boar). It was a-maz-ing.

Our main course was rosemary beef steak served with a grilled, stuffed onion and freshly picked garbanzo beans from the owners’ garden.

Sliced steak, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

Our main course at dinner: sliced steak cooked to perfection and topped with fresh rosemary.

Appetizer at Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

On the side: a baked onion half topped with crunchy, seasoned bread crumbs served alongside garbanzo beans freshly picked from the owners’ garden.

Unsure if we could eat another bite, we somehow found room for a slice of lemon cheesecake for dessert.

Villa Ambra dessert, Montepulciano

Dessert: Lemon cheesecake with a pineapple slice. Yum!

After dinner, we sat and visited with Deb and Massi under the stars on the patio outside before heading to bed for a wonderful night’s sleep. Honestly, does it get any better than this?

Villa Ambra patio, Montepulciano

Guests can retire to the patio after dinner to enjoy a relaxing Tuscan evening.

The next morning, after sleeping like babies in the comfy bed, we woke to a farm fresh breakfast spread. We enjoyed a table filled with breads, meats and cheeses and a host of other delectable treats, including homemade cakes and jams.

Breakfast buffet, Villa Ambra, Montepulciano

A beautiful breakfast buffet greets guests in the morning.

Let me just say that one night at Villa Ambra was not enough for me and according to the owners, most people feel the same. Andrea said many of their guests stay for one or two weeks at a time. He said people relax at the hotel or by the pool and enjoy wine and cheese tours and tastings in the area. In fact, some guests even come during the late fall to participate in the grape harvest and wine bottling. Villa Ambra is open from March through November.

Villa Ambra hotel, Montepulciano

The main entrance of the Villa Ambra hotel.

We want to thank Andrea and his wife Elisa and everyone at Villa Ambra for hosting us and making us feel like a part of their incredible family. We can’t wait to come back.


 

Note: While the goods and services mentioned in this article were provided to us free of charge, the opinions are our own. For more information about Villa Ambra, visit their website at http://www.villaambra.com/en/.

 

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Five tips for wine tasting in Tuscany

Five tips for wine tasting in Tuscany

I’ve done wine tastings before. You pull into a winery, hear all about their wonderful product while sampling a flight of four to five wines poured out in small, two-sip portions 10 seconds apart, decide whether to buy, and then head out the door. So, when we set out on a complimentary wine tasting tour in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany with our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver, that’s about what I expected. I could not have been more wrong.

Massi, Deb, Steve and Ann

Massi, Deb, Steve and Ann stop for a picture in Tuscany.

The wine tasting tour Deb and Massi took us on in Tuscany was completely different than anything we’ve ever experienced and we loved it! We think everyone who can should taste wine there. And when you go, remember these five tips to help you have the very best experience possible.

1. Have a driver and guide

Having a driver and guide made all the difference in the world. Driving in a foreign country means learning new traffic patterns as well as new road signs. And in Italy it means learning a whole new culture of driving where lane lines and stop signs are often only seen only as suggestions and driving in the wrong parts of town will result in hundreds of dollars in fines. I’m not kidding.

Massi the driver and van

Massi the Driver knew all the best routes and with him driving, we got to enjoy the view.

I didn’t have to worry about any of that, nor did I have to worry about trying to figure out where we were going which it turns out was down lots of winding, hilly one-lane roads with about 2.4 million roundabouts. Instead of arriving white-knuckled and stressed from the drive, I was relaxed and glad to have had the opportunity to enjoy the scenery rather than focusing on the road.

Tuscan hills and vineyards

Looking over olive groves and across the vineyards of Tuscany.

Having a guide was wonderful because we began to hear the stories of the wineries and the wines before we ever arrived at a property. We learned about the natural, organic method used by wine makers in Tuscany, and about how the rose bushes planted at the end of the rows help growers notice potential disease before it reaches the vines.

Roses in Tuscany

Roses like these help wine makers gauge the health of their vines.

We were educated about the grape varietals in the wines, and about the significance of the letters “DOCG” on a label on the neck of a bottle. By the time we got out of the car, we knew something about where we were and what we were tasting. Our experience was so much richer because of it.

2. Take it slowly

Each of the properties we visited were small, family run operations. After arriving, we met our hosts and spent a good amount of time chatting and getting to know them before we ever tasted a single wine. For the owners of the wineries, it felt like it was more about building relationships and showing pride in their work than making a sale. And we liked that.

Wine tasting in Tuscany

Steve and Deb relax on a terrace, enjoying the wine, food, and view.

At one winery, we had a tour of the cellar, seeing the stainless steel vats where the grapes fermented, turning into wine. We then learned about how they use oak barrels to fine-tune the flavor of their wine.

Wine barrels

Wine barrels.

Next, as a bonus, we saw how they press their own olive oil from trees on their farm. As we chatted, we heard the story of how it took 10 years for them to get a permit to build the cellar and their home above, that before then, they had to work out of a shed and constantly move equipment in and out. By the end of the conversation, we actually knew the family and understood the passion they put into their craft.

Steve and Ann with winemaker

Steve and Ann stop for a photo with Sam, one of the wine makers.

When it came time to taste the wine, there were no hurried two sip pours. Instead, the wine maker offered enough of each wine for us to savor, along with heartfelt conversation that made us feel at home on their beautiful properties.

3. Savor the food parings

At each winery, the wine maker offered us food pairings as we sat sipping delicious wines. This wasn’t a plate of cheap crackers or bowl of pretzels, either. Instead, they would pour a wine and then disappear into the house, returning with beautifully plated Italian snacks including prosciutto, bruschetta, cheeses, and olive oil. Every morsel was delicious and served to make the wines even better.

Food pairings for wine tasting in Tuscany

With one tasting, we sere served some bruschetta, as well as prosciutto, salami, cheese, and honey.

At one winery, the owner gave us a sampling of organic jams that she cans from fruit she grows in her garden. We put dabs of these on pecorino cheese from the region and delighted in every single bite.

Tuscan jams

One wine maker offered us homemade jams made from fruits and vegetables in her garden.

4. Stop along the way

Because we had a private driver and guide who knew where we were going and how long it would take to get there, we could stop along the way and explore some locations we never would have found on our own. One fond memory is a stop in a little walled town called Castellina in Chianti.

Tuscan flowers at a winery

Everywhere we looked, we saw beautiful flowers, like these at one of the wineries we visited.

There, we explored the narrow streets, while learning that hundreds of years ago the cities of Florence and Siena constantly fought over control of the town. Today, there is a statue showing how the town has been influenced by both cities.

Castellina in Chianti

This statue, in Castellina in Chianti, shows how the city was pulled toward both Florence and Siena.

Ann has always wanted a big olive wood board to use to serve meats and cheeses at home, and Deb and Massi knew just the place. They led us to a store and said the prices here would be better than anywhere else. I have to admit, we were impressed enough with the price that we bought one, but curious as to whether it really was the best price we kept our eyes open for the rest of the trip. Looking back, I’m happy to report that the board we bought was anywhere from 20-100 Euros ($25-$125) less than any other board we found.

Olive wood serving board

We bought one of these beautiful olive wood serving boards. Deb and Massi knew just where to get the best deal.

And, because we thought it was a beautiful place with a really cool tunnel-like construction along the city wall, here’s another gratuitous picture from Castellina in Chianti.

Tuscany through a window

Peeking out a window in the city wall of Castellina in Chianti.

We had one other unique stop on our tour through the Chianti region, a stop at a Antica Macelleria Cecchini butcher shop that was featured by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. We posed for a picture with Don Dario Cecchini, shouting, “carne!” (meat) instead of, “cheese.”

Steve and Ann with butcher

We stopped to pose for a picture with this butcher who was featured on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows.

As we walked away from the butcher shop, Deb and Massi told us they also offer a meat lover’s tour that stops at this place for a multi-course dinner featuring some of the best the shop has to offer. I can’t wait to come back and sink my teeth into that juicy tour.

5. Revel in the affordable prices

While Ann and I aren’t experts by any means, we are pretty up-to-date with pricing of wines because its something we enjoy.

Chianti wine bottles

Chianti wine in the traditional basket. While a decoration today, originally, the wine bottles were round so they were put in a basket so they would stand up.

Sitting in Chianti, drinking some of the best wines the region has to offer, I couldn’t believe how good the prices were. We were shocked to learn that good bottles of wine were available for 10 Euros, or about $13.00. Even with the cost of shipping factored in, the prices were very reasonable and, I daresay, less than we’d pay in the United States for a similar wine. At times I almost laughed when I saw the price list because I thought they had to be kidding. But that’s fair market price in Italy, and one of the advantages of visiting wineries in Tuscany. Get a few bottles, ship them home, and savor your savings along with the wine.

Oak wine barrel

An oak barrel is used to hold wine as it ages. The oak imparts flavors to the wine.

At the end of the day, I reflected that wine tasting in Tuscany was not at all what I expected. The beautiful scenery, the excellent wines, new information, and friendly company made it far better.

Massi and Deb

Massi and Deb. We sure miss these two.

I am so glad we had access to the expert knowledge of Italy Unfiltered to share with us some of the best wineries the Chianti Classico region has to offer, as well as Massi the Driver to take us right to their doors. We will long treasure the memories we made that day, especially in October when the weather is cool enough for safe shipping and the wine we purchased there arrives.


Our wine tour and transportation were provided to us free of charge by Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver. The opinions expressed are our own.


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5 tips for wine tasting in Tuscany.

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Our incredible private tour and cooking class in Chianti with Italy Unfiltered

Our incredible private tour and cooking class in Chianti with Italy Unfiltered

After spending a day on our own exploring beautiful Siena, Italy, our hosts Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband Massi the Driver picked us up at our hotel and we began our complimentary tour of Italian food, wine, and culture in the Chianti Region. As we got in the car, Steve confided in me that he’d already set his belt one notch looser in anticipation of the day.

Deb of Italy Unfiltered and her husband, Massi the Driver.

Of course, our first stop of the morning was for an espresso. This is a very Italian thing to do when you are having what Massi likes to call an “espresso deficiency.” I’m used to my Americano style coffee and still need a bit of milk in mine, so I ordered a caffe macchiato which is espresso with a dollop of foamed milk on top, typically served in a something that resembles a shot glass.

Cafe machiatto was a great cure for our espresso deficiency.

Now with the proper amount of caffeine in our systems, we headed down winding roads and up and down hills into the Chianti Clasccio region of Tuscany. The drive was incredibly beautiful and we were thankful that we had a personal driver and tour guide to not only tell us about the food and wine of the area but to actually get us there as there is no way we could have found this place by ourselves.

The family home where we did our cooking class and explored their winery.

The family home where we did our cooking class and explored their winery.

When we arrived at our destination, Deb and Massi greeted the owners who appeared to be old friends and they welcomed us into their home and winery. Our time with there began with a private cooking class.

Steve and I laced up our aprons and we got right to work. Our first lesson was in making traditional tiramisu, one of my all-time favorites.

We "mostly" separated six eggs for our tiramisu.

We “mostly” separated six eggs for our tiramisu.

We mostly separated six eggs and began beating the egg whites with an electric mixer. Sadly, we had spilled just a touch of yoke into the whites which was enough to ruin it. No worries. We started again and the second time around was successful.

As you can see, the the little bit of yolk that accidentally fell into the white ruined the process.

As you can see, the the little bit of yolk that accidentally fell into the white ruined the process.

Steve beat the egg yolks with a bit of sugar and then we folded the whites and yolks back together along with some mascarpone cheese.

Next, we dipped individual lady finger cookies in cooled espresso and placed them in a small, square dish. Then, we added a layer of the cream filling and sprinkling of cocoa powder before repeated the process again.

Our tiramisu, ready to set in the refrigerator. We marked each our creations with a colored band so we could see which one turned out the best.

Next, our instructor insisted that we take a few of the extra lady fingers and dip them in the left over espresso, then dip in the cream filling, and eat! Of course we had to try, I mean, we wouldn’t want to offend our host.

Then, because we’d worked so very hard on our tiramisu, our host broke out the Prosecco and served it with some fried pizza dough that had been sprinkled with sea salt. Prosecco and a snack? This was my type of cooking class.

Steve got very happy when the glasses of Prosecco and the fried pieces of pizza dough came out for a snack.

Steve got very happy when the glasses of Prosecco and the fried pieces of pizza dough came out for a snack.

Next, we learned to make fresh pasta using semolina flour, farm fresh eggs, and just a touch of Tuscan olive oil.

We kneaded the dough before rolling it into a ball and covering it with a bowl to prevent it from drying out.

Next, we used a rolling pin to roll our pasta out into a long rectangle. Once the dough was smooth and thin, we rolled it like a scroll from the top to the middle, and then up from the bottom so the rolls met in the middle.

After kneading and rolling the dough, we rolled it up from each end until they met in the middle.

Then we cut the rolls into small strips, separated them with our cutting knife, and voila — we have pasta!

Next, we cut the rolls into thin strips with a sharp knife.

The fun part was slipping the knife under the noodles and lifting in the middle to see them all unrolled.

Our third and final dish was traditional Tuscan bruschetta — that’s pronounced bru-sketta–which is an antipasto dish consisting of grilled bread topped with garlic and olive oil or other fresh things like tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella.

Tomatoes, basil, and garlic are the main ingredients in tomato bruschetta.

I’ve made bruschetta many times before, but a new tip in our class is to leave any extra tomato seeds and juices on the board after cutting the tomato. These hold much of the acidity of the tomato and can make the bruschetta too runny.

After our cooking class was finished, we wandered outside where Massi and Deb told us more about the gardens and vineyards on the property. We had fun checking out 50 year-old wisteria and some 100-year-old grape vines. The property was just beautiful — full of color and life.

One of the 100-year-old grape vines.

The property was filled with beautiful flowers and plants, including lots of fresh lavender.

Then, we walked up a view steps to a patio where the table was set for the most amazing wine tasting and lunch. My jaw must have dropped when I saw the view. It was just incredible.

This view was just stunning.

We began tasting wine, made right there on the property, along with the bruschetta we’d made and some other cured meats and cheeses.

At lunch, we tried the bruschetta we’d made along with other pizzas, cured meats, and cheeses.

Then, two types of pasta arrived, both using the noodles we’d made just a few minutes before. One dish had a mild tomato sauce with fresh torn basil while the other had a spicier red sauce and thyme. Both were delicious.

The pasta we made!

Throughout our intimate lunch, Deb and Massi shared their expertise about Tuscany and tradition. We learned so much about Chianti Classico wine, food preparation, and everything that goes into owning and operating a small, family winery in Tuscany.

The black rooster is a quick and easy way to spot a Chianti Classico wine.

After a long and relaxing lunch which ended with sweet bites of our tiramisu, we headed into the winery where Massi told us all about how the wine is made, stored, and perfected. We had ample opportunities to ask questions and take photographs, things we don’t always have the opportunities to do when traveling in group tours.

Chianti Classico wine.

As we headed back to the car, I couldn’t help but think that this opportunity would not have been possible without the help of Deb and Massi. They knew this family personally and were able to provide us with a Tuscan experience that is not easily found on TripAdvisor or in a Google search. The personalized experience they gave us made our day special, and it was all the more special because we only did things we wanted to do.


While the tour and transport services were provided to us free of charge by Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver, the opinions in this post are our own. To learn more about Deb and Massi’s services, email them at dlarsen5@icloud.com.

Watch a video about our day in Chianti with Deb and Massi at the link below.

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How we learned how to cook like an Italian on our trip to Tuscany.

 

How I fell into a Tuscan food coma – Part 2

How I fell into a Tuscan food coma – Part 2

[well]This is Part 2 about our complimentary Tuscan food tour with American, Deb, of Italy Unfiltered, and her Italian husband, Massi the Driver. To read Part 1, click HERE.[/well]

We left the bakery, simultaneously asking ourselves how we could possibly eat more and vowing to try. We walked to the car, admiring Siena’s rather imposing city wall as we set off for our next stop, the hidden farmer’s market.

The city wall in Siena, Italy.

Bricks in the city wall of Siena, Italy

An up-close look at the city wall in Siena, Italy. Can you imagine what it took to build this hundreds of years ago?

Massi drove us down narrow streets and through round-a-bouts that we were thankful not to have to maneuver on our own and within a few minutes, we pulled into what we thought was a vacant strip mall because it had no signs. Ann and I didn’t see a farmer’s market, but that didn’t slow our hosts. They led us through an unmarked doorway and into a fresh food lover’s dream.

Steve and Deb from Italy Unfiltered inside the secret food market in Siena, Italy.

Inside, vendors had set up shop selling chickens, proscuitto, fruits, vegetables, tomatoes, honeycomb, pasta and soap. All of it was fresh and in season and all of it looked amazing. With ingredients like these, we began to see why all the food here is so good.

We got to Siena just at the end of the cherry season. These were likely the last to be sold this season.

Deb, a Texan who herself is a graduate of culinary school, told us that Tuscan cuisine is based on three basic ideas: It’s seasonal, regional, and traditional. In other words, the food served at any point in the year is available fresh, and is prepared according to local recipes in the same way it was prepared hundreds of years ago.

Basil in the farmers' market, Siena, Italy.

Huge bunches of fresh basil were available at the hidden farmers’ market in Siena, Italy.

Pasta from the hidden farmers' market, Siena, Italy

We bought a package of this authentic pasta at the hidden farmers’ market.

We purchased some pasta which will be perfect on a cold October’s night and headed to our next stop – a roadside fruit and vegetable stand that sold some of the most beautiful produce we’ve ever seen.

I have to give props to Ann, she got some wonderful photos. I’ll let them do the talking, but know that everything we sampled tasted even better than it looked.

Fresh garlic and onions at a roadside stand.

Two must-haves in Italy – fresh garlic and red onions hanging at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand in Siena, Italy.

Peaches in the farmers' market, Siena, Italy.

Fresh peaches at a roadside fruit stand in Siena, Italy.

Vegetables at a roadside stand in Siena, Italy

Fresh vegetables at a roadside stand in Siena, Italy.

Fresh tomatoes in Siena, Italy.

Fresh tomatoes in a roadside stand in Siena, Italy.

We paused our tour at this point to make stop at an Italian electronics store where they sell everything from curling irons and coffee makers to televisions and refrigerators. Apparently, they take ironing very seriously here. Check this out:

Iron at electronics store, Siena, Italy

Italians take ironing very seriously. We have no idea what the bottom part of this iron does.

Check out the vast array of irons. But what all do they do?

While Deb and I looked around, Ann picked out a curling iron since she forgot the one that works on European outlets at home, and then we headed down the way to the coffee shop where Massi was waiting for us. There, we saw the most amazing little tarts, and we just had to try get a picture of one.

Tarts in Siena, Italy

These two little tarts were fresh and delicious!

These were so fresh that the blueberries burst in my mouth. Yum.

We hopped back in the car and drove to our final stop for lunch. Antica Salumeria Salvini is a place where they sell cured hams, sausages, and meats as well as fresh salads. As we approached the salumeria, Deb and Massi explained that the owner uses recipes that are several hundred years old and is so protective of them he hasn’t even shared them with his son.

Antica Salumeria Salvini, Siena, Italy

Inside Antica Salumeria Salvini.

When we entered the shop, Deb and Massi were greeted like old friends while Ann and I were welcomed like honored guests. We took a moment and wandered the shop admiring the hanging hams, drying sausages, and beautiful meats on display before heading to our table to settle in.

Salami at Antica Salumeria Salvini, Siena, Italy

Salami on display at Antica Salumeria Salvini.

We ordered a bottle of the house wine. When it came, something about the label caught our eyes. We looked closer and noticed that it was a picture of the owner of the shop lying on his side wearing only a crown of sausages. He did have a prosciutto ham placed strategically to preserve a little modesty.

House wine label at Antica Salumeria Salvini, Siena, Italy

Thank goodness for the well-placed prosciutto ham in this picture on the wine label.

It quickly became obvious that the owners are fun-loving people who are

Drive less so you can drink more.

This says, “Drive less so you can drink more,” in Italian.

full of personality. On a chalkboard was written, in Italian, “Drive less so you can drink more.” They were friendly, quick to share a laugh, and have a strange love of all things Texas.

We sat and chatted with Deb and Massi, by now feeling like they were old friends. Soon, the food began to come. Then more, and then more. It was like the salumeria was trying to beat us into submission.

First came a bowl of chilled pasta with pesto, then a bowl of panzanella, a bread salad made with tomatoes, basil, onion, salt, pepper, olive oil, and day-old bread crumbs.

Pasta with pesto at Antica Salumeria Salvini, Siena, Italy

This pasta with pesto was delicious!

Next came a meat and cheese board. On it were several different types of prosciutto, sausages, and cheeses, each one more delicious than the last. I’m not sure how long we sat eating, chatting, and eating some more, but I know that we felt a sense of relaxation down deep, the type of relaxation you feel when you finally disconnect from the rat race and settle in to a slower pace of life.

Antica salumeria salvino meat and cheese board, Siena, Italy

Who can resist the goodies on this delicious meat and cheese board?

At last our tour came to an end. Stuffed, we headed back to the car and then to our hotel. We got to our room, and I sat down to write about our experience, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I drifted off into a wonderful, relaxing, sleep. When we left the hotel later on that night to explore more of Siena, we did so with a much deeper understanding of the people and culture behind all we were seeing.

Photo with owner of Antica Salumeria Salvini

Steve and Ann stop for a photo with the owner of the Antica Salumeria Salvini.

We are so grateful we had the opportunity to do this foodie tour with Deb and Massi. We went places we would not have known existed, tasted about 30 new foods and wines we wouldn’t have known much about, and had behind-the-scenes experiences we never would have had without their expertise and connections.

Trust me, this is how you immerse yourself in Tuscany – one taste at a time.


Deb and Massi’s Foodie Tour and transfer services were provided to us free of charge, but the opinions expressed are our own. If you are traveling to Tuscany, you can book Deb and Massi’s services by visiting their websites at Italy Unfiltered or Massi the Driver.

 

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