Pruneti – Discovering Olive Oil with A Top Producer in Tuscany

pruneti-olive-tree-private-tours-tuscanyA key component to Tuscany’s wonderful cuisine is its delicious olive oil. Olive oil appears in almost every course; drizzled generously on bread, salads, tomatoes, vegetables, even on the famed Bistecca alla Fiorentina, and used extensively in cooking, from sauces to saute to even sweet desserts. Guests on our private tours in Italy often ask how to identify a quality olive oil. The simple answer – you must know where your olive oil is coming from. Unfortunately, the regulation of olive oil quality is extremely lax, and olive oil can be labelled as Italian, but not from Italy at all. If you can buy directly from a quality producer, that is best. When purchasing at a supermarket or your local gourmet store, look for an extra virgin olive oil that identifies the region it comes from – Tuscany, Liguria, Sicily.

pruneti-brother-private-tours-tuscanyJust prior to a September private cycling tour in Tuscany, I was invited to visit one of Tuscany’s top producers of olive oil, Pruneti. Located in San Polo, near Greve in Chianti, five generations of the Pruneti family have been farming in these hills for over 150 years.Twenty-five years ago, the family decided to focus its production on olive oil. They still produce some saffron, wine, and iris flowers – the roots are used in perfume, and the San Polo area traditionally sourced this unique product. But today, the commercial focus is olive oil, and brothers Gionni and Paolo oversee 26000 olive trees spread across 170 hectares, and produce a variety of olive oils, all biodynamic.

pruneti-harvest-private-tours-tuscanyIn 2008, the family built the current mill and tasting room. During my mid-September visit all was tranquil and quiet, but this is the calm before the storm. With harvest beginning in mid-October -perhaps earlier due to a very hot summer – the mill will be busy round the clock. Seventy or so seasonal workers are hired to harvest the olive crop. All harvesting is performed by hand, with workers combing through the olive trees, releasing the olives which drop into nets placed under the trees. The brothers decide daily which olives to harvest; this means identifying tree by tree which to pick as the different varietals and different orchards reach optimum ripeness at different times. Olives harvested on the early side provide grassy, spicy, bitter flavors; olives harvested later provide more fruity, smoother flavors.

pruneti-brother-press-private-tours-tuscanyThe olives arrive at the mill, and with the aim to produce the very freshest olive oil, the olives travel from orchard to press in only four hours. This means that brother Gionni, the “oil artisan”, doesn’t leave the mill much during harvest season. Much like an expert winemarker, Gionni continually monitors the pressing process, sampling and adjusting as the olives arrive. The press itself offers different settings, you can crush the olives with a hammer, cut them with a blade, or pass them through a disc using friction to break them. Gionni possesses the experience and palate to know which setting will best bring out the flavors he knows are hidden inside.
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Following the pressing, the olive paste is agitated, then centrifuged twice, once to separate the liquids (oil and water) from the solids, the second time to separate the oil from water. Close to 90% of the olive is waste product, not oil. Pruneti only produces top quality first press extra virgin olive oil. They do not try to squeeze second tier oil out of the waste to increase the yield. Managing this waste is a laborious process. Pruneti turns the waste into various forms of biofuel. The pit waste becomes pellets that heat the entire facility, and the locals can come and purchase it to use for their home stoves. The rest is shipped off to become a biogas.
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Pruneti has made a significant investment to ensure the quality of their oil. Today the entire oil production process occurs in a sealed environment, protecting the oil from harmful oxidation. From pressing to bottling the oil is only exposed to a nitrogen atmosphere, which is very important for export, providing a much longer shelf life. Whether awaiting bottling in a stainless steel tank, or after bottling, the oil is protected from oxygen until you open it at home.
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My host at Pruneti, Emanuele, then introduced me to their monovarietal oils, Leccino, Moraiolo, and Frantoio. These three varietals are common in Tuscany, representing 85% of production in the region. I can’t wait to try some of these back home in my own kitchen!

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pruneti-oils-tasting-private-tours-tuscanyLeccino

These olives are big and oblong. Vegetal and grassy, with a nice peppery finish. Not aggressive, somewhat mild, but still some spicy notes. Great on a lettuce salad, drizzled on carpaccio or fish.

Moraiolo

These olives are small and round, and difficult to harvest as they resist picking, and the olives tend to grow in the upper branches. The oil is a bit less aromatic, but fruitier, with notes of banana, sage, nuts. A mild, almost sweet flavor at the start, it is very spicy at the finish, with lots of black pepper. Pair this oil with grilled red meats and vegetables, or drizzle over bean soups and bitter greens, such as arugula or endive.

Frantoio

This olive is the symbol of Tuscany, boasting an array of international awards. This oil is more viscous, with bitter flavors of artichoke, arugula and radicchio. The spicy notes are more immediate than the Moraiolo, occuring more in the mouth than the throat. Persistant. Enjoy on your Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or a tomato bruschetta.

Tips for storing your olive oil:

Olive oil hates light, hates oxygen. Before opening, it will keep for 18 months if sealed with nitrogen as Pruneti oils are. After opening, it will keep for 5-8 months. iStore at room temperature (don’t refrigerate), and in the dark.

To get Pruneti oil:

Their on-line shop is on their website www.pruneti.it. Their US importer is Sungrove Foods, www.sungrovefoods.com.

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Kaiserschmarren – Sweet Omelet from Sudtirol

kaiserschmarren-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesLate June and July is the best time to explore the Dolomites. This magnificent mountain area epitomizes the Best of Italy; stunning vistas, fascinating history and blend of cultures, and amazing and unique cuisine. Our Dolomite hiking tours  and cycling adventures allow us a week to immerse ourselves in all of these as we explore the area. Rustic mountain rifugi nestled in these peaks provide ample opportunity to refuel on regional dishes as we travel.

rifugio-s-croce-view-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesOne of my favorite local dishes that reflects the areas Austrian roots is Kaiserschmarren. Kaiserschmarren is a light, eggy caramelized pancake, baked in butter. The pancake is split with two forks into pieces while frying, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and served hot with apples or plums or various fruit compotes. It can be enjoyed as a dessert, or it can also be eaten for lunch or an afternoon snack at most mountain rifugi in the Dolomites.

kaiserschmarren-pan-forks-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesThe name Kaiserschmarrn or Kaiserschmarren takes its name from the Austrian emperor (Kaiser) Franz Joseph I, who was reportedly very fond this treat, and served with jam was his favorite dessert. Schmarren refers to a scrambled or shredded dish, but is also slang for trifle, mess, or nonsense.

rifugio-s-croce-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesWhile it is generally agreed that the dish was first prepared for Kaiser Francis Joseph I, there are several anecdotes around its invention. One involves the Emperor and his wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria. Obsessed with her figure, the Empress directed the kitchen staff to prepare only light desserts, much to the consternation of her husband. Upon being presented with the chef’s confection, she found it too rich and refused to eat it. The exasperated Francis Joseph quipped, “Now let me see what ‘Schmarren’ our chef has cooked up.” It apparently met his approval as he reputedly finished both his and his wife’s serving.

kaiserschmarren-rifugio-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesAnother story is that Francis Joseph and his wife were traveling the Alps and stopped by a farmer’s home for lunch. The farmer was so nervous that he threw all the fanciest ingredients he had into a pan to make a delicious pancake; worse yet, due to his nervousness and shaky hands he scrambled the pancake. Hoping to cover up the mess he then covered it with plum jam. Luckily, the kaiser thought it was scrumptious.

One last tale is that the Empress was a poor cook and couldn’t flip a pancake efficiently. She decided to play to her strengths and shred the pancakes altogether and would serve them up to the Kaiser on a regular basis. Even as an experienced cook, flipping the pancake is always tricky, so I like that the final product allows for error here!

kaiserschmarren-pan-private-hiking-tours-dolomitesKaiserschmarren can be prepared in different ways. Typically the egg whites are separated from the yolk and beaten until stiff; then the flour and the yolks are mixed with sugar, and the other ingredients are added. You can simplfy and just combined all the ingredients without separating the eggs, but the results will not be as fluffy. In the more traditional recipes only raisins are added, but now you can find versions that add nuts, cherries, plums, apple jam, or pieces of apple.

Kaiserschmarren – Sweet Crumbled Omelet

Makes 1 12” pancake

1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 tablespoon rum
3 egg whites
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup raisins
Powdered sugar

Mix together the flour, milk, cream, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla and rum until well combined.

Lightly beat the egg whites with the salt, until stiff, then gently fold them into the flour mixture.

Heat the butter in a large frying pan, pour the schmarren batter in the pan, sprinkle with raisins and fry until cooked on the bottom and the top is beginning to set.

Flip the pancake, add a bit more butter and continue to cook until the other side is crisp. Break up the pancake with two forks. Continue cooking briefly.

Serve, dusted with powdered sugar.

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What is Chianti? Exploring Italian Wines with Italiaoutdoors

chianti_panorama-private-bike-tour-tuscanyWe are off next month on a private bike and wine tour in Tuscany, where we will enjoy panoramic views of the lovely landscape of this region while we explore Tuscany’s best wine areas. Tuscany, and its largest wine zone Chianti, is probably the most famous wine growing area in Italy, even though it is only #6 in terms of wine production.

chianti-zonesThe Chianti regions – there are officially two, Chianti DOCG and Chianti Classico DOCG – lie in the Tuscan hills, in west-central Italy. The first mention of a Chianti wine region dates back to 1716, when Cosimo de Medici defined this wine zone.  This original zone, today the Chianti Classico DOCG, shown in lighter green on the map, is a hilly area between the cities of Siena and Florence.  You will see many of the villages in this original zone have appended their names with the ‘in Chianti’ designation, such as Greve in Chianti, Radda in Chianti, and Gaiole in Chianti.

antinori-chianti-riserva-private-walking-tours-italyThe Chianti DOCG, shown in darker green, surrounds the original Classico zone with fingers stretching in all directions. This region is divided into seven subzones, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Colli Senesi, Montalbano, Montespertoli and Rufina. You will often, but not always, see the subzone identified on the label.

frescobaldi-chianti-rufino-private-bike-tours-italyIn the 1850s, a local landowner, Baron Ricasoli, declared his ‘recipe’ for Chianti, based on the native Sangiovese grape blended with 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia Bianco. The Italian government voted this into law in 1966. As with many Italian wines, as international demand increased in the 1960s, Chianti producers increased production by utilizing lower quality grapes, ultimately flooding the market with inferior wines. These Chianti were packaged in the now well recognized squat bottle with a straw covering, appropriately called a fiasco.

In the 1970s, new investors entered the area, with a renewed focus on quality production. In addition to investing in modern production facilities and new cultivation techniques, many of these new producers began experimenting with the traditional Chianti recipe, replacing the lower quality white grapes with international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This new style of wine became quite controversial, as many viewed these as not  ‘true’ Chianti wines. Today, the official definition of Chianti consists of at minimum 70% Sangiovese, with a maximum of 10% white grapes allowed. Permitted blending grapes are traditional native varietals such as Canaiolo and Colorino, as well as international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Chianti Classico wines must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese, with white grapes no longer allowed at all.

chianti-varietals-wine-bike-tours-tuscanyAging requirements vary from subzone to subzone; the Riserva designation indicates a Chianti that has been aged for a minimum of 2 years (instead of 4-7 months). Chianti that meets even more stringent requirements on yield, alcohol content and dry extract, may be labelled as Chianti Superiore, although Chianti from the “Classico” sub-area is not allowed to be labelled as Superiore.

chianti-barrels-private-walking-tours-italyA Chianti bottle will often have a picture of a black rooster (gallo nero) on the neck of the bottle, indicating that the producer is a member of the Gallo Nero Consortium. This is an association of producers of the Classico sub-area that work together to jointly promote the Chianti brand. The ‘gallo nero’, a traditional figure denoting peace between long time rivals Florence and Siena, has been the emblem of the Chianti Classico producers association since 2005. Legend has it that in 13th century Florence and Siena decided to use a horse race to end their land dispute over Chianti. The meeting point of two knights, who had left respectively from Florence and Siena when the rooster sang at dawn, would mark the new border. The Florentines selected a black rooster and kept it for a few days in a box with no food. On the day of the race, when they took the rooster out of the box, he sang much earlier than dawn.  Thus the Florentine knight left before the Sienese rider, meeting him only him only 20 km from Siena walls. Since then the black rooster has been the symbol of Chianti: first of the Chianti League in 13th century and then of the Chianti Classico Consortium.
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Chianti wines are characterized by their acidity, dryness, and distinctive flavors of cherry and herbs. They are ruby red, moderate in alcohol, and somewhat tannic. Younger, lighter Chianti pairs well with pastas, pizza and panini. A more robust Riserva would be a great match to roasted or grilled meats, such as a thick grilled Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Tuscany’s famed breed of white Chianina cattle.

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bistecca-carving-walking-tour-tuscany

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Unordinary Trip of the Month and Giveaway

cyclist-amarone-cycling-tour-italyDear lovers of Italy and biking enthusiasts!

Today we are pleased to announce that our Bike the Amarone Wine Roads tour has been nominated as an Unordinary Trip of the Month by InfoHub.com, the #1 travel portal on the Internet specialized in the out-of-ordinary vacations. Passionate about cycling and dedicated to promoting Italian food and wine culture, we are thrilled about this nomination and hope to see more people worldwide choosing to pedal for holiday in Italy in the nearest future.

In light of this, we are glad to offer our guests a special prize! Any of you who book the above tour before September 15, 2017 may be eligible for a very special prize from InfoHub’s sister-company GPSmyCity – publisher of travel apps for Apple and Android. The GPSmyCity app features offline city maps, self-guided walking tours and travel articles for 1,000 cities worldwide, using which you can turn your mobile into a personal tour guide. With this app you can explore Rome, Venice, Florence, Genoa and many other urban destinations in Italy and further afield on your own, at your own pace. The GPSmyCity app works offline so there’s NO need to worry about roaming charges when traveling abroad.

A lucky winner will be chosen at random to get a one-year full membership of the GPSmyCity app including access to ALL the GPSmyCity content – over 6,500 self-guided city walks and travel articles – to the total value of over $8,000!!!

Book now and enjoy your Italian cycling adventure!

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Semifreddo di Nocciole con Salsa di Pesche

semifreddo-above-private-walking-tours-italyOne of the many benefits of an active holiday, like our Italy cycling tours or walking adventures, is the ability to indulge guilt-free in dessert at the end of our meal. Often we cannot decide which wonderful treat to order, so we order one of each and pass around the table.

semifreddo-close-private-walking-tours-italyThis week I am featuring a couple of local products from Northern Italy in an easy summer dessert, Semifreddo di Nocciole, a Hazelnut Semifreddo. Semifreddo, “part frozen” is a frozen dessert found in restaurants across Italy. As it contains more sugar and air than ice cream, it doesn’t freeze as hard, and can be cut into slices straight out of the freezer. And you don’t need an ice cream maker or any other special equipment to make it – you just mix the ingredients, place into a loaf pan, cover with plastic wrap and freeze for a few hours.

nocciole-piedmont-cycling-toursThe center of hazelnut production in Italy is the region of Piedmonte. In the Langhe area, home to the amazing Nebbiolo wines (Barolo, Barbaresco) grows the IGP Tonda Gentile del Piemonte (“round noble of Piedmont”), also known as “Nocciola Piemonte”.

In 1946, Pietro Ferrero, who owned a bakery in Alba, Piedmont, made a sweet from ground hazelnuts and a bit of chocolate, as cocoa was in limited supply due to WWII rationing. This “Pasta Gianduja” was originally sold as solid bar, but Ferrero later produced a creamy version, called ”Supercrema”. In 1963, Ferrero’s son Michele Ferrero revamped Supercrema with the intention of marketing it throughout Europe, renamed “Nutella”. Today Nutella consumes close to 30% of the world’s hazelnuts.

Today in the Langhe area visitors can spot the hazelnuts orchards among the vineyards – the trees are neatly spaced 5 meters apart to allow for a self-propelled picking machine. Harvest is in August and September, when the nuts are completely ripe and fall from the trees. After harvest, the product is dried, either in the sun or by air dryers, and then stored in thin layers. Cortemilia, a small town in the province of Cuneo, celebrates the Sagra della Nocciola IGP Piemonte – the Festival of the Piemonte Hazelnuts – every August for over 60 years now.

peaches-verona-bike-tours-europeI accompanied my version of this dessert with a peach sauce. During the summer months on our tours through the Amarone wine area outside of Verona, we see orchards of the “Pesca di Verona IGP” peaches and nectarines. These are certified as to the varietal, sugar content, taste balance, color and size. There are a total of 22 varieties, with early, mid and late season availability. Peach desserts are a specialty of this region during this season.

moscato-piedmont-cycling-toursServe with a dessert wine from Piedmonte, like the regional frizzante white wine of Moscato d’Asti

Semifreddo di Nocciole – Hazelnut Semifreddo

3 egg yolks
1 egg
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon rum
2 ounces hazelnuts, finely chopped in a blender
1 cup heay cream

Combine egg yolks, egg, and sugar in a metal bowl or top of a double boiler. Place in a saucepan of just simmering water, and beat while heating up to 180°F.

Remove from the heat, add the rum, and continue to beat. Allow the mixture to cool.

In a cold bowl, beat the heavy cream until stiif peaks forrm. Fold into the cooled egg mixture. Fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts.

Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap. Pour the semifreddo into the pan, distribute it uniformly, cover it with more plastic wrap and place it in the freezer for at least 3 hours. Cut into slices and serve with the peach sauce.

Salsa di Pesche – Peach Sauce

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 ripe peaches, peeled, halved, pitted, each cut into 8 wedges
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark rum

Melt butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add sugar and cinnamon and cook, stirring often, until sugar begins to dissolve. Add peaches and vanilla. Sauté until peaches are tender, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. Stir in rum. Return skillet to heat and cook until sauce thickens, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes. Serve with hazelnut semifreddo.

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