A Travel Guide to Cortona, Italy

cortona-view-italiaoutdoors-private-italy-toursCortona is a lovely small city in Tuscany, Italy, a wonderful destination on our private cycling tours and walking tours, its hilltop location offering stunning views of Lake Trasimeno and the Val di Chiana. Its ancient walls reveal its Etruscan origins. Legend has it that Cortona was founded by the legendary Dardanus before 500 B.C., becoming one of the twelve cities of Etruria. Today many Etruscan ruins and tombs may be seen in the vicinity. Cortona sided against Rome until 310 B.C. when Fabius Rullianus defeated the Etruscans and took Perugia. Later Cortona was destroyed by the Lombards but was soon rebuilt. In the 14 C, it was governed by the Casali and afterwards became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
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Today, Cortona is most famous as the setting for Frances Mayes’ novel, “Under the Tuscan Sun”. But strolling its medieval streets, visiting its many artistic treasures, or just enjoying its amazing location with a spectacular view, has always made Cortona well worth a visit. You can explore Cortona’s Etruscan and Roman heritage at the Museo dell’ Accademia Etrusca in the 13th century Palazzo Pretorio on Piazza Signorelli. Or visit the Chiesa di San Domenico near the public gardens to appreciate its 15th century altar and works by SIgnorelli and Fra Anglieco. The Duomo, Cortona’s Renaissance cathedral, was built on the stie of an Etruscan temple, and is home to many lovely 16th and 17th century paintings.
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Most visitors never get to the neighborhoods above Cortona. Walk up above the main town, where you will find the main church, Chiesa di Santa Margarita. A beautiful church, and the final resting place of the patron saint of Cortona, Santa Margherita, at the altar in a glass case. Also above Cortona is the 16th century Medici Fortezza, one of the many Medici fortresses built in the middle ages. There are often exhibits here, but it is worth a visit simply to enjoy great views of nearby Lake Trasimeno.
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After your explorations, take some time to enjoy the local foods and wines. A great spot to do this is on the Piazza della Republica, with many outdoor cafes. Local dishes include many varieties of bruschetta, toasted bread rubbed with local olive oil and topped with anything from fresh tomatoes (Bruschetta al Pomodoro) to chicken livers. First courses include a bread and tomato salad, panzanella, or a fresh tomato soup, Pappa al Pomodoro. The favorite pasta here in Cortona are thick noodles called pici, with sauces from fresh tomatoes and garlic to ragu di cinghiale (wild boar). A treat for meat lovers is the local beef from Val di Chiana, a Chianina steak, often called Florentine beefsteak. You’ll need a partner for this dish, as they usually are served by weight starting at 1kg – over 2 pounds. For dessert, try cantucci, a biscotti like cookie that is served with the traditional Vin Santo, a local sweet wine.
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The vineyards covering the rolling hills surrounding the town belong to the small Cortona DOC wine region. Historical evidence dates the origin of grape cultivation in this area to the Etruscan times when grapes vines were planted among orchards, the adjacent trees used to support thee vines. Wine production in the Val di Chiana area suffered in the Middle Ages as the valley deteriorated into swamp. Grape cultivation returned only in the second half of the 16th century when the area was reclaimed, with Cortona wines particularly prized by pope Paul III who during his stays in nearby Perugia had wine delivered from Cortona for his banquets.
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The Cortona DOC was created in 1999 to define and protect the local winemaking traditionas. Vine cultivation is allowed only in fields over 250 m above sea level. Amongst the wines of this DOC you will find a variety produced from traditional local grapes like Grechetto and Sangiovese, as well as international varietals like Cabernet, Merlot, and, interesingly enough, Syrah, which is not cultivated widely in Italy. During the Napoleonic occupation of this area in early 1800s, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, an avid oenophile, encouraged the cultivation of international varietals here.

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Secrets Behind a Great Bruschetta

bruschetta-pomodoro-private-tours-tuscanyEnjoying an afternoon wine tasting with a plate of bruschette is the perfect way to relax after a day of cycling in Tuscany. But what exactly is bruschetta – it seems to take on many forms here in Tuscany – and how do I impress my friends back home with an authentic and delicious version?

bruschetta-tuscany-view-private-toursLet’s begin with saying it correctly – it is pronounced BRU-sketta, note the “ch” is pronounced as “k” in Italian. The name bruschetta comes from the Roman dialect verb bruscare, meaning ‘to roast over coals’. This is an ancient dish, dating back to the Etruscan age. Then, this referred to a simple dish of grilled bread – best day old, a bit stale – either grilled or baked in an oven, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. According to Marcella Hazan, the dish most likely originated in ancient Rome, when olive growers bringing their olives to the local press would toast slices of bread to sample their fresh-pressed oil. In Tuscany, renowned for its olive oil, the olive farmers believe that the oil should be very young and recently pressed and that bruschetta is best accompanied by a glass of wine. As an old Italian proverb goes, “Day-old bread, month-old oil, and year-old wine”.

bruschetta-close-private-tours-tuscanyToday, the term bruschetta often refers to an antipasti that consists of this basic grilled bread served with just about any topping you can imagine. All over Italy you will see an enormous variety of options – with meats like prosciutto crudo, chicken livers, fresh sausage or lard; versions served with zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms, bell peppers and many different kids of cheeses. Probably the most common version is the bruschetta al pomodoro, topped with tomatoes, basil, and more olive oil.

bruschetta-ingredients-close-private-tours-tuscanyThree simple tips for making great bruschetta in your own kitchen:

Great ingredients – Now is the time to invest in a wonderful bottle of fresh olive oil from your local gourmet store, or open that one you brought home from Italy. Buy a marvelous loaf of sourdough or other artisinal bread. Coarse grain salt. Fresh garlic.

Top it according to the season – One of the most distinctive differences between an Italian cook and a US cook is creating menus according to what is in season. If it is not currently growing in their neighborhood, Italians don’t use it. I’ve been in the prosecco zone, about 15km away Bassano del Grappa, home to some absolutely amazing white asparagus, and the producer I was chatting with claimed they never eat this delicacy, even in season, because “we don’t grow that here.” So now, in August, I’m making bruschetta al pomodoro with fresh, local heirloom tomatoes. I’ll enjoy this version until the end of the tomato season, and won’t eat it again until next July. In the meantime, there are mushroom bruschette to enjoy in the fall, maybe radicchio and chestnut; sauteed kale or chicken livers in colder months. Spring will bring bruschette with peas and asparagus.

Serve with a great Tuscan wine – And perhaps explore beyond Chianti. Absolutely nothing wrong with Chianti, I love them. But the Italian wine universe does not begin and end there. There are MANY other wines in Tuscany. How about a Brunello di Montalcino? Or a Vino Nobile? Or a Syrah from Cortona? Or a Carmignano?….

bruschetta-pomodoro-close-private-tours-tuscanyBruschetta al Pomodoro

Makes 8

Ingredients

2 large or 3-4 medium, fresh, local, amazing tomatoes, diced small
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced into ribbons
8 slices of a great bread, sliced about 1/2” thick
1 – 2 cloves fresh garlic
High quality fresh extra-virgin olive oil

Place the tomatoes in a colander over a plate to catch the juices. Season with salt and pepper, and half of the basil. Let sit at room temperature while you toast the bread.

Toast the bread in a 350° oven directly on the rack until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Or grill. You want nicely browned grill lines, but still a softer interior – best to soak up juicy tomatoes.

Remove from oven, and rub each slice all over with a garlic clove. Brush each slice with olive oil. Place the bread slices on a serving plate, top the bread with tomatoes, garnish with remaining basil and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil right before serving.

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Pici Pasta from Tuscany – Fatta a Mano

aglione_pici_tuscany_custom_toursAfter a day of cycling in the hills of Tuscany, or walking through the vineyards outside of Montalcino or Montepulciano, our favorite pasta lunch is a plate of pici all’aglione. Pici is a rustic handmade pasta from Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia. Called pici in Cortona and Montepulciano, and pinci in Montalcino, they are a long, irregular spaghetti, best when “fatta a mano” or “fatta in casa”, made by hand, or in house. The name pici comes from the term “appiciare”, which refers to the traditional manual technique used to form these long, thick noodles. Ancient in origin, dating back to the Etruscans, they were made from only flour and water, the poor everyday pasta of the Sienese peasants. Including a small amount of egg was the rich version, reserved for Sundays and holidays.

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Plate of pici all’aglione in Cortona

There are several different ways of producing pici, all of which require only your hands, a wooden board, and optionally a rolling pin – no pasta machine needed. I’ve made it in Italy with a local chef, and we simply pinched off pieces of dough and rolled them between our palms or on a wooden board to form 1/4 inch round snakes from the dough. Unless you are quite adept at this technique, this will result in shorter noodles, around 6 inches in length or so.

dough_strips_pici_tuscany_custom_toursThe traditional “appiciare” technique involves rolling out a larger quantity of dough into a sheet around 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. You cut a strip of dough about 1/4” thick from this sheet, grasp one end in your fingers to hold, then, using a flat palm, roll the noodle back and forth on a floured wooden board to round and lengthen. The result should be a rounded, thick spaghetti that can, in expert hands, reach 3 –  6 feet in length. Here’s a YouTube video showing this technique.
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As I am not an expert in appiciare, I did a little bit more work with a rolling pin to minimize the rolling by hand. I rolled out a larger quantity of dough into a sheet around 1/8” thick, then cut this sheet into thin flat strips around 1/4” wide. I then attempted to roll the noodles with my palm, but I made these on a granite counter top, and my flat noodles didn’t roll, they just slid around. You really need the traction of the wood board. So I simply twisted each flat strip between my thumb and fingers to form the long round spaghetti, and that worked pretty well. The result are long, fairly thick, irregular noodles. This is a rustic, peasant dish, so don’t worry overly much about making perfectly formed, uniform noodles!
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There are several different traditional accompaniment for pici, but in the late summer my favorite is all’aglione, a simple sauce made from fresh tomatoes, lots of garlic, and a great olive oil.

I would always pair with a local wine – in Cortona, a Cortona Syrah. In Montepulciano, a Rosso or Vino Nobile. In Montalcino, a Brunello.

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Pici all’Aglione

Serves 4

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups semolina flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons warm water

5-6 medium fresh heirloom tomatoes, or a mix of full size and cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
4 large cloves garlic, minced
10 basil leaves, chiffonade
Kosher salt

Place the flours and salt in a small bowl and stir to combine. Pour the flour out on a clean counter, and form a well in the middle. Pour the warm water into the well.

pasta_well_pici_tuscany_custom_toursUsing a fork, begin to scrape some of the flour from the inner sides of the well into the water, slowly incorporating more and more of the flour. The water in the middle will thicken and become a soft dough. Eventually you will be able to loose the fork and just use your hands. Keep incorporating the flour as needed to keep your dough from sticking to your hands and the counter top. You do NOT need to incorporate all of the flour, the amount of flour will depend on the type, the humidity, and other variables. You want a nice soft dough, not too sticky.

dough_well_pici_tuscany_custom_toursKnead the dough for about 10 minutes or so, adding a bit more flour only when it begins to stick. Cover the dough, and allow to rest for 30 minutes.

To form your pici:

Pinch off a small piece of dough and roll between your palms or on a wooden board to form 1/4 inch round snakes. Place the formed pici on a sheet pan dusted with semolina flour. Do not allow them to touch, as they will stick to each other.

or

Divide the dough in 4 pieces. Take one, and cover the rest with plastic wrap. Roll out into a sheet around 1/4” to 1/2” inch thick. Cut a strip of dough about 1/4” thick from this sheet, grasp one end in your fingers to hold, then, using a flat palm, roll the noodle back and forth on a floured wooden board to round and lengthen. The result should be a rounded, thick spaghetti that can, in expert hands, reach 3 –  6 feet in length. Here’s a YouTube video showing this technique. Place the formed pici on a sheet pan dusted with semolina flour. Do not allow them to touch, as they will stick to each other. Continue with the remaining 3 pieces of dough.

or

Divide the dough in 4 pieces. Take one, and cover the rest with plastic wrap. Roll into a sheet around 1/8” thick, then cut this sheet into thin flat strips around 1/4” wide. Take each strip, and roll the noodles on a floured wooden boards with your palm to form rounded, thick spaghetti. On a granite counter top, and my flat noodles didn’t roll, they just slid around. In this case, you can twist each flat strip between your thumb and fingers to form the long round spaghetti. Place the formed pici on a sheet pan dusted with semolina flour. Do not allow them to touch, as they will stick to each other. Continue with the remaining 3 pieces of dough.

For the sauce:

Coarsely chop and seed the fresh tomatoes.

Bring a large pot of water to boil.

In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil and red pepper flakes. Add the tomatoes and garlic, and cook over medium heat until the tomatoes soften, render their juice and begin to thicken, around 15 – 20 minutes. Season with salt.

When the water is at a full boil, season the water with salt, and add the fresh pici. Cook just until al dente; you want some bite to the pici, not mushy. Drain.

Combine the pici and the sauce in the saute pan, then serve in large bowls, drizzling liberally with more olive oil and garnishing with the basil strips.

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Make Gnocchi Like an Italian

michael shaping gnocchi hiking tours italyOur Italy tours this season included several cooking classes. After our walking tour in Venice we cooked fresh seafood straight from the Adriatic. In the town of Bolzano, after a day cycling down the Sudtirol Wine Road surrounded by the Dolomites and Alps, we cooked fresh mushrooms and white asparagus. Some classes were hands-on events led by me, others were Italian chefs demonstrating their techniques, and one very special class was a collaboration between myself and an Italian chef, Chef Michael Seehauser in Bolzano.

group with chef michael private hiking tours italyThroughout the tours, our Italian chefs shared their recipes and techniques for making gnocchi. I have made gnocchi countless times, quite often in cooking classes as it is a fun dish to make with a group. I’ve developed my own methods for insuring light and tender gnocchi, but learned some new techniques from Chef Michael.

sampling gnocchi custom hiking tours italyOur list of ingredients and ratios was quite similar – potatoes, eggs, flour, salt. I use 2 eggs, Chef Michael uses 5 egg yolks. Chef Michael emphasized the proper choice of potato, something starchy like our russet potatoes is preferable. He peeled, then boiled them until tender, riced them while still warm, then places them in the refrigerator overnight. This allows them to dry out quite a bit. We both agreed the secret to tender, light gnocchi is to use as little flour as possible. Including this drying time helps with this.

shaping gnocchi hiking tours italyChef Michael also recommends mixing in the eggs and salt in before adding the flour. He believes this allows the salt to be better distributed in the dough. He then adds nutmeg – he described it as a “little nutmeg” but it was much more than I would have included! I had just seen another chef add nutmeg to his gnocchi the week before, and it was just a few scrapes on the grater. Chef Michael added much more, probably close to 1/2 teaspoon or so. I liked very much the addition of the nutmeg, but will probably adjust the amount I add according to the final recipe – a sauce with some earthy flavors might bear more nutmeg, while something light and fresh I’d add a bit less.

finished gnocchi guided walking tours italyHere’s Chef Michael’s recipe:

From Chef Michael Seehauser in Bolzano

2 1/4 pounds starchy potatoes, such as russet
5 egg yolks, beaten slightly to combine
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Peel and cut potatoes into large chunks, Place in a large pot of water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Cook until tender when pierced with a knife. Drain.

Allow to cool just until you are able to handle them. While still warm, rice the potatoes. On a scale, weigh 2 pounds of potatoes for your gnocchi, using any that remain for another purpose. Allow your 2 pounds of riced potatoes to cool to room temperature, and then preferably sit overnight in the refrigerator.

When cool, add in the egg yolks and salt and mix to combine. Add in the nutmeg and the flour, and mix again, just until combined; you don’t want to handle the dough too much.

Fill a small pan with water and bring to a boil. You will use this to test the texture of your gnocchi. Take a small piece of dough, about the size of a strawberry, and drop it into the boiling water. It will cook for about a minute, and then should rise to the surface. If, rather than sink and then rise, it breaks apart, add a bit more flour to the dough and knead again. Once you get a test one that sinks and then rises without blowing apart, you are ready to move on to the next step. You should have a test gnocchi that is cooked through, but still soft and light.

Dust the counter with flour. Divide the dough into between 4 and 5 equally sized pieces. Take one of the pieces and place it on the floured counter top. Using the palms of your hands, roll the piece out into a 1/2 inch thick log, which will be about 18 inches long. Cut the log into 1-inch lengths, and place the individual gnocchi onto a sheet pan that has been dusted with flour. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.

Fill a large pot with water, bring to a boil and season with salt. Add the gnocchi to the boiling water in small batches. Once they have risen to the top, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and lay them on a baking sheet to cool. At this point, they are ready to use in your favorite sauce or baked gnocchi dish.

Chef Michael’s tips:

Use a starchy potato
Rice when warm, so you don’t get mushy gnocchi
Allow to cool, preferably overnight to insure they are as dry as possible.
Add the egg yolks and salt before the flour, as the salt will better mix into the potatoes
Add a lot of nutmeg

Add links to my ways to use gnocchi:

Gnocchi and Tomato Gratin

Gnocchi con Crema di Montasio, Speck e Semi di Papavero (Gnocchi with Montasio cheese, Speck and Poppy Seeds

Gnocchi Crocconti di Sauris

chef michael at work private walking tours italy

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The Cherries of Marostica, Italy

main piazza marostica walking tours italyToday our private cycling tour brought us back to Marostica, a town famous for its annual chess game, and known for its cherries. Cherry farming has always played an important role in the local agricultural economy. The Marostica cherry P.G.I., the only Italian cherry to bear this geographical indication, is heart-shaped and is picked by hand without removing the stalk, a technique that helps the fruit maintain its flavor and aroma. The color of the Marostica can range from pink to dark red according to the variety. It is juicy and has a full taste, ranging from somewhat tart to sweet.

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Sweet Duroni on left

The best-selling varieties are Sandra, Romana, Francese and the distinctly sweet Duroni rossi. The growing area stretches across hills strewn with old towns, such as Marostica, with its Upper Castle, Lower Castle and city walls, all built in the fourteenth century. The historical center is home to numerous palaces and religious buildings, such as the charming seventeenth-century Carmini Church, the San Marco Church, built by the Venetians in honor of the Patron Saint of the Republic, and the Sant’Antonio Abate Church.

In even-numbered years in early September, the world famous human chess game is played with living pawns in the famous Piazza degli Scacchi in front of the Doglione Palace and Lower Castle. The game dates back to 1454 when it was organized to settle a courtly duel between two noble lords competing for the hand of a lady, the daughter of the Lord of the Castle of Marostica. To celebrate his daughter’s wedding the Lord planted cherry trees in the surrounding countryside.
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Marostica is also known for it’s local cherry festival, the Sagra delle Ciliegie, celebrated on the last Sunday in May every year. This event celebrates the first spring fruit. Throughout the harvest season cherry based delicacies are served in the traditional restaurants of the area.

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