Wine

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January 2018

10 Must See Sights in Florence

By | 2018-01-14T10:41:49+00:00 January 14th, 2018|Feature, food, General, hidden gems, Wine|

Ponte Vecchio
Uffizi Gallery
Florence Duomo
Boboli Gardens

10 Must See Sights in Florence

1- The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

This massive Gothic cathedral simply known as the Duomo, serves the role of not only being Florence’s religious center but is also one of the most recognizable entities in the city. If the viewer is not already enticed from a far by the building’s stunning architecture, once inside the guest will be drawn into a narrative packed with history and culture.

2-Uffizi Gallery

Located along the banks of the Arno River in the Historic Centre of Florence lies Europe’s first modern museum. This is one of Florence’s most popular attractions so a long wait is expected, but if you have the time endure the wait you would be rewarded with the best collection of Italian paintings in the world. Whether you are observing the work of Giorgio Vasari or admiring the life-sized paintings of Botticelli, the Uffizi Gallery is sure to possess a masterpiece that catches your eye.

3- Galleria dell’Accademia

While this museum holds many works of art that deserve your undivided attention such as St. Matthew or Cassone Adimari, the main reason why this location is one of the most desirable areas to visit by guests can be summed up with one word: David. Michelangelo’s most famous work is housed here in the Galleria and will continue to attract visitors from all over the world for years to come.

4- Ponte Vecchio

Once a location run by butchers and bakers, a flood washed away the old bridge and, in its place, rose Ponte Vecchio, one of the oldest bridges in all of Italy. If you are looking for a historically significant area, look no further than the bridge that has survived it all from natural disasters to attacks during World War II. The bridge is known to be the heart of the city’s gold and jewel trade, so expect to find some fancy trinkets as you venture through the markets.

5- Boboli Gardens (Giardino di Boboli)

If you are looking for a change of pace from the up-beat tempo of Florence’s city center, try taking a casual stroll through the Boboli Gardens. This beautifully landscaped area provides a quiet setting where you can take in all of what Florence has to offer without being bothered by all the noise and commotion of city activities. While perusing through the garden try finding some of the statues that have been strategically placed on the path and take advantage of the picturesque views provided by the Boboli family’s garden.

6- Piazzale Michelangelo

Perched high above the city in the Oltrano district lies the Piazzale Michelangelo, arguably the best viewpoint in all of the city. This view comes with a cost, as many of its visitors recall the towering staircase that needs to be climbed in order to reach the square, however, if you are into panoramic views that are sure to garner tons of likes on your Instagram, then it is well worth the workout.

7 – Baptistry (Battistero)

Most known for its massive doors whose work was once praised by the great Michelangelo, Baptistry also has the distinction of being the oldest building in all of Florence, dating back to the 5th century. Interesting enough, this octagonal masterpiece was thought to be a temple dedicated to the Roman God of war, Mars, but it is yet to be proven.

8- Campanile di Giotto

Known also as Giotto’s Bell Tower, the 277-foot tower serves as another vista to capture those scenic views of the city you have been yearning for. The tower actually had three architects influence its construction, so it is very intriguing to see how those powerful minds clashed to create this visual work of art.

9- Palazzo Pitti

What were once residential homes for citizens during the Renaissance, is now the location of some of Florence’s most intricate museums after the area was bought by the Medici family in 1549. The Palazzo Pitti is the largest museum complex in Florence, spanning about 32,000 square meters and previous guests suggest blocking out several hours of your day so that you may see all of what it has to offer.

10- Piazza della Signoria

This free, outdoor museum area is regarded as the perfect place for the weary traveler to rest as well as viewing some marvelous sculptures, such as the gigantic statue of David replica. This area is great to catch your breath while also not feeling as though you are wasting precious exploration time while you complete your experience in Italy!

November 2017

Christmas in Florence and Tuscany!

By | 2018-01-02T22:10:17+00:00 November 15th, 2017|Christmas, Feature, food, Wine|

Christmas in Florence
Italian Christmas traditions with Panettone
Celebration

Christmas in Florence and Tuscany!

Florence, Italy is by far one of the most magical and beautiful cities in the world and millions and millions of visitors agree.  It’s the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to unforgettable landmarks, museums, monuments, art, culture and food!

If you have never visited Florence or have been many times, the Christmas season is not to be missed.  The streets are festively decorated and shopkeepers take pride in their window dressings.  Christmas markets are abound full of unique and precious gifts to buy for you or loved ones and chestnuts are roasting on an open fire but this time—they are everywhere!

Living like a local in Florence means experiencing all that it has to offer this time of the year.  There are fewer tourists (although there are always people visiting Florence), the weather is milder and there are many cultural activities to take part in.  The festivities start in early December.

If you are looking for furnishings, food and wine, the festivities for you start at the Christmas markets all around Florence.  The largest one is located in Piazza Santa Croce.  There’s a combination of vendors and somewhat of a German theme—you know that means–warm wine!  Of course, you can always find the leather goods Florence is famous for—bags, gloves, book binders, notebooks, etc.  You can also negotiate your prices with better success given the fact that Florence has fewer tourists this time of the year.

If you are interested in visiting museums, the Uffizi Gallery is open throughout the Christmas season except on Christmas and New Year’s day.

If instead you are looking for a spiritual experience, Christmas Eve Mass is held by the Cardinal of Florence at midnight in the Duomo of Florence, while the vigil prayers start earlier, around 11 pm.

For New Year’s Eve, you can celebrate in the main squares of the city and attend one of the concerts.  In the Piazza della Signoria, for example, there’s usually a classical music concert while in the Piazzale Michelangelo, a pop concert on New Year’s Eve.

Living like a local, there’s plenty to see and do during the holidays in Florence.  Some wineries are open and other well-known cities such as Siena and Arezzo also have festive decorations and holiday markets.  These make for very enjoyable day trips.

We look forward to hosting you during one of our experiences where you will learn to live like a local all seasons!  Happy holidays from A Toast to Travel!

October 2017

Truffles, Truffles and more Truffles—Let’s Hunt!

By | 2017-10-04T10:20:40+00:00 October 3rd, 2017|Feature, Features, food, General, hidden gems, Wine|

Truffle hunting in Tuscany
tagliatelle with truffle sauce
Toasting travel with Italian red wine

Truffles, Truffles and more Truffles—Let’s Hunt!

So, what are Truffles?  They are rare, edible mushrooms with an intense aroma and flavor.  They grow underground and can be difficult to find.  They only grow in certain parts of the world.  Certain experts in the past (and some still do) used pigs and hogs to find them—today, in Italy, dogs are used as they  don’t eat them as soon as they find them!  That was a big problem–the hogs would eat the truffles as soon as they found them before they could be stopped.  The dogs, on the other hand, can be trained not to eat them so they end up being a much better choice for the hunt.

October and November in Italy are great times to hunt and eat truffles.  There’s also the Fiera del Tartufo or truffle market which takes places during this time.  Prices vary per pound each year.  The rarest truffles are the most expensive food in the world.  Did you know that the record price paid for a single white truffle was $330,000.  It was unearthed near Pisa, Italy and weighed 3.3 pounds!

Imagine learning to make hand-made pasta only to drizzle your own creation with a special sauce created by you from the truffles you hunted in the morning!  During our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience, we hunt truffle with truffle hunting experts and their dog.  We walk the hills and with the help of the dogs, seek and find the most delectable truffles we can to use later in the kitchen during our hands-on cooking class.  Heading over to the kitchen, we learn to make Tagliatelle con Tartufo or Tagliatelle with Truffle sauce.  It’s only the start of the week with many authentic recipes to come so pace yourself, pack yourself!

Of course with any Tagliatelle con Tartufo wine is a good complement.  We usually enjoy a Chianti Riserva with this dish as it brings out the best of each.  In Tuscany, there’s always enough Chianti to go around and you certainly can spend your time focusing on wine tasting during The Ultimate Tuscan Wine Experience where we indulge in stunning wineries in Tuscany during tours, wine tastings and exclusive tasting and dinner menus.  It’s all part of living like a local with A Toast to Travel.

If you’ve always wanted to visit Italy or if you’ve already been and have always wanted to go back, now’s the time to pack your bags.  All you need to do is get there and we’ll handle the rest!

August 2017

Fall in Tuscany—the harvest of the grapes

By | 2017-09-02T13:21:14+00:00 August 23rd, 2017|Events, food, Wine, wine festival|

There are very few places that can compete with the beauty of Tuscany in the fall.  The leaves are turning colors, the air is crisp, the temperature mild and if you love wine, now is the time to travel.  La Vendemmia is the harvest of the grapes and each year, many take advantage of this time of the year to travel to Tuscany.

Italy is dependent on wine production for its economy and it’s an important time of the year.  Unique grape harvesting activities abound in Tuscany while grape stomping like you may have seen in I Love Lucy is considered unhygienic.  Fun, but unhygienic.  Fret not, there are many activities you can take part in or if you are like us, you can just enjoy drinking it.

For those of us who enjoying drinking it, grape selection is an important part where the ripeness of the grape matters.  There are many different tasks that must be completed during the grape harvest, and although no one can exactly predict the week the grape harvest will happen, it’s still a beautiful time of the year in Tuscany.

During The Ultimate Tuscan Wine Experience, we host you on visits to 4 different and stunning wineries in Chianti where you can live like a local and take part in the revelry—even if we don’t stomp grapes, we still enjoy all the abundant wine Tuscany has to offer with Chianti being the most well-known.

The harvest is not only for wine lovers.  Many fall foods are abundant in Tuscany and ready for you to enjoy from fall root vegetables to chestnuts to mushrooms.  During our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience, we take advantage of the fall abundance during our hands-on cooking classes.  Simone, our resident chef, will show us how to make an authentic and mouth-watering mushroom risotto using farm to table mushrooms and herbs.   It’s also time to hunt truffles for the other delicious dishes we will learn to make all as part of living like a local.

If you’ve always wanted to visit Italy or if you’ve already been and have always wanted to go back, now’s the time to pack your bags.  All you need to do is get there and we’ll handle the rest!

June 2017

May 2017

A Day in the Life—the courses of an Italian dinner

By | 2017-05-04T09:19:21+00:00 May 3rd, 2017|Feature, food, hidden gems, Wine|

For Italians, mealtime is a social and friendly affair.  Italians love to take their time, savoring each course and enjoying good company and great wine.  Meals can take several hours with plenty of time for socializing and if the weather is nice, soaking up the beautiful sun.  It can be intimidating to understand what all the courses are and the cadence of the meal in Italy.  To help put you at ease, we’ve put together some information on eating dinner like an Italian.

So what are all the typical courses of an Italian dinner?  Well, after you’ve had your aperitivo (more on that in an upcoming blog) where you’ve enjoyed a pre-dinner drink with a few snacks at a bar or café and shared the latest news with your friends over a glass of wine or two (or spirits or prosecco), now it’s time for dinner.

Assuming you are dining in a ristorante (we will also write more on the differences between the various types of places to eat in Italy), generally the courses are as follows:  antipasto, primo, secondo (with contorno) and dolce.  Of course, not everyone orders or eats all the courses and that’s the beauty of it all—the point is to have a great time and enjoy life.  La Dolce Vita!

Now, let’s start with the antipasto (no pun intended).  This is the starter course and it can consist of charcuterie, cheese and bread or it can simply be a beautiful bruschetta made with fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil.  The next course, il primo, is the first course.  Typical first courses or primi (plural for primo) are pasta, soup, gnocchi and risotto.  Portion sizes tend to be smaller than in the US so you should still have room for the main course, il secondo!  Generally this is your meat or seafood course.  Depending on the region where you are dining, you can choose from various seafood or meat options.  In Tuscany, the bistecca alla fiorentina is your best option if you love steak.  It’s tender, juicy and grilled to perfection after having been drizzled with olive oil and herbs.  Magnifico!  Also, Italians normally order a contorno or a side with the secondo and the contorno is usually vegetables (raw or cooked).  I tend to order a salad—arugula salad to compliment the taste of the steak.  I add a little extra virgin olive oil, squeeze a fresh lemon and add a dash of salt to my arugula salad.

The last course is the dolce or dessert.  There are many delicious options to choose from including tiramisu, panna cotta, cake or gelato.  Keep in mind, wine is served during the meal and after dinner, most Italians have an espresso (no milk).  Some Italians will also have a digestivo to aid in digestion after dinner.  Generally, the digestive after the meal is a grappa, amaro or limoncello (depending on the region of Italy).

I hope you find this content helpful in living like a local.  Please feel free to send us any topic you are interested in learning more about and we’ll be happy to write about it.  In the meantime, Buon Appetito!

 

 

 

April 2017

San Giovanni Valdarno

By | 2017-04-11T07:26:26+00:00 April 11th, 2017|Feature, hidden gems, Wine|

It is undeniable that Italy is rich in culture and history and for many, at the top of their bucket list.  Many of its cities are quite well known—Rome, Milan and Florence for example.  All are recognizable by name or landmark.  At the same time, Italy is also blessed with many lesser known cities and towns with their own charm and that also served considerable strategic and historic importance.

San Giovanni Valdarno is one of those towns.  It may be lesser known but its strategic and historic importance cannot be underestimated.  Founded in the XIII century by Florence as a way to consolidate its presence in the Higher Valdarno, that higher ground served as a lookout for and from any impending danger across Arezzo, Florence and Siena, Tuscany.  Located in the valley of the Arno River (“Val d’ Arno” or valley of the Arno = “Valdarno”), the area is divided into the Upper Valdarno (between Arezzo and Siena) and Lower Valdarno (between Florence and Pisa).

Towards the end of the XIV century, San Giovanni Valdarno’s strategic position and in Upper Valdarno enabled a military victory during an invasion by an army led by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first duke of Milan.  Despite this victory, the town continued to be in the middle of many battles, including the battle between Florence and Naples.  Unfortunately, that battle ravaged the territory.  When Florence finally emerged victorious over Naples, a short period of peace began and restoration projects and architectural progress were made.  Despite this progress, a spreading plague epidemic greatly reduced the population and devastated the inhabitants.

When Lorraine’s Dukes “Lorena family” came to power, the fate of San Giovanni Valdarno changed for the better.  The Lorena family was one of the most notable and famous of rulers who cared for the people and the region.  They were great patrons and brilliant politicians who greatly enhanced the people’s quality of life.  They started significant territorial projects and infrastructure improvements which resulted in economic prosperity and the cultivation of wheat and vegetables.  The resilience of the people of the land helped to shape their future.

Today, San Giovanni Valdarno is home to Villa Barberino (Greek for “broken ground”) where we host our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience.  With its strategic position and the role it played in the feuds between Florence and Arezzo, it’s a medieval castle not to be missed!

Boasting of several private rooms (and apartments) located in various historic buildings inside the walls of the hamlet, you can also visit the villa’s museum to learn about all the tools the farmers of yesteryear relied upon to live and make a living.  During our wine tasting experience, we challenge you to find the escape hatch thousands of years old used by the residents of the villa to escape danger in the event of an invasion.  Maybe with enough wine—it will be easier to find!  Running through the hatch, you find yourself in the woods free to run as far (and as fast) as you can.  You might also walk the lush green Italian gardens, visit the vineyards, take in the scent of the surrounding cypress trees or just lie by the pool and sip your Tuscan wine.

San Giovanni Valdarno is a hidden gem and a beautiful canvas for any Tuscan countryside experience.  We welcome you to join us at Villa Barberino to learn how to live, cook, lounge and explore like a local

 

March 2017

So Much Wine, So Little Time… Part 1

By | 2017-03-06T15:31:58+00:00 March 6th, 2017|General, hidden gems, Wine|

Hi Everyone,

For those that follow me, you already know that I LOVE Italian wine, specifically Tuscan reds.  So, it is with great pleasure that I speak to this delicious topic.  I drink red wine year round, and that is typically all I drink with the exception of the occasional glass or bottle of sparkling.  Natalie on the other hand tends to stick with sparkling when it is warm and switches to red when it turns cooler.

What is with all those letters on a bottle of wine?

If you drink Italian wine, I am sure that at some point you have noticed a seal with letters.  Such as DOC or DOCG.  These are formalized grading standards for Italian wine.  In a nutshell, you have IGT, DOC and DOCG.  IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica ) is the lowest formal standards and has loose standards with regards to the grape varieties that are allowed from the area that the wine comes from.  DOC (Denominazione Origine Controllata )  is the next step up.  And at the highest level is DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata e Garantita).  DOCG is meant to represent the most legendary wines in Italy.

There are way too many types of Tuscan wine to discuss each one, so I will touch on a few of my favorites.  Now, to decide on a few favorites – This is a very difficult decision.  I love the king of Italian red, the Brunello di Montalcino but I equally love Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a of course a good Chianti.  I could probably list about 4 more very easily, but I will stick to these for this series.

Brunello di Montalcino-

Brunello is a medieval village in the province of Siena, and the winemaking region is to the Northeast.  Brunello tends to be more expensive than most other Italian reds.  This is primarily due to the smaller production area.  The Brunello di Montalcino area is roughly 3,000 acres while Chianti has about 40,000 acres.  Brunello di Montalcino is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, which is also the dominant grape in Chianti.  The difference in these grapes is that due to the higher and dryer climate, the grapes ripen at a more consistent rate.  This wine also must be aged for 5 years after harvest.  Because this is a heavy red, it is an amazing wine to pair with the king of steaks, the Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

We visit amazing wineries on our Tuscan Wine and Culture Experience as well as our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Cooking Experience

February 2017

Why are there different pasta shapes?

By | 2017-02-24T08:46:12+00:00 February 12th, 2017|Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun, Wine|

To celebrate A Toast to Travel’s Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun, our latest experience, we will explore the different types of pasta and what type of sauce is best paired with it.  We will divide this into a series of posts so be sure to check back often.

There are many different types of pasta to choose from, and this post will discuss the long and thin pastas.  The most common are Spaghetti, linguine, and vermicelli.  Spaghetti a long round pasta and is probably the most common pasta.  Linguine is long and flat while vermicelli is round and thinner than spaghetti also known as spaghettini.  These types of pastas are best suited for light sauces such as seafood, cream or oil based.  Linguine and a clam sauce is a very typical Italian pairing that is delicious.  Pasta should be paired with the correct sauce because of the taste and texture as well as the ability for the sauce to adhere to the pasta for the best result.  Obviously, you can be as creative as you want but we are just discussing the classic preparations.

When cooking pasta you should use a pot large enough for the pasta to move around.  If the pot is too small, the pasta will stick to each other and not turn out well.  You should salt to taste, there are several schools of thought but salt taste.  Remember to reserve some of the water that you cooked your pasta in so that you can use it in your sauce if needed.

Remember to experiment with different ingredients, and when creating your sauce do not skimp on the ingredients.  One of the most important things to remember, and what we spend a lot of time with in our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience is the quality and freshness of your ingredients.  Use fresh vegetables, herbs and meat.  It isn’t always possible to pick your own oregano, but try to use fresh as much as possible.

Check back for our next discussion, and be sure to check out our Experience Tuscany – Live Like a Local Experiences.

Ciao!