Dinner in Chianti: Dining at Castello di Spaltenna


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"There are a few perks to being a blogger who blogs mainly about Italy, like receiving invites to dinner at evocative, charming medieval castles in Chianti, such as Il Castello di Spaltenna.

DSCN4093

At the castle entrance.

A little background: Castello di Spaltenna is nestled in some of those iconic rolling Tuscan hills just above the town of Gaiole in Chianti, about 45 minutes north east of Siena. The castle dates back to the year 1000, with the Pieve (church) being the structure’s focal point.

Today the castle and its related structures comprise a luxury resort, complete with a whole host of rooms and apartments decorated in classic Tuscan style. There’s a pool, a vineyard, and new this year is a spa, with an array of treatments such as saunas, massages, Turkish baths for visitors to choose from.

What sets Spaltenna apart from some other resorts in the area is that it’s not a new structure made to look old and authentic, it really is authentic. It’s been carefully restored and kept throughout the centuries, and it’s the perfect spot if you’re looking for a serene Tuscan getaway. You won’t always have wi-fi (the monks didn’t!), and it’s a bit of a challenge to get to if you don’t have a car, but well worth the effort.

DSCN4097

Paradise in Tuscany – Castello di Spaltenna

Castello di Spaltenna also has two restaurants: La Terrazza for breakfast and lunch, and the more formal, Il Pievano for dinner. Both run under the direction of Executive Chef Fabrizio Borraccino, whose leadership, coupled with the hard work of his team, have been garnering a lot of media attention and praise lately. And let me tell you, it’s very well deserved. More about that later.

DSCN4030

We (a group of communications/travel/hospitality professionals) arrived at Spaltenna at dusk, and were immediately welcomed by the hotel’s Director, Alessandro Ercolani, who offered us an aperitivo on the terrace, and who spoke to us about both the history and the future of Spaltenna. We watched the sun set behind the cypress trees before moving over to the stone-walled inner courtyard of Il Pievano to tuck into our candlelight dinner.

Il Pievano Restaurant - luxury & ambiance in Chianti

Il Pievano Restaurant – luxury & ambiance in Chianti

There, we were met by the Maitre D’, Andrea Giubbilei, and his attentive staff. They welcomed us, pulled out our chairs, brought stools for our purses to rest on( something I’ve never been offered in Canada) and hinted that we shouldn’t fill up on the freshly made foccaccia, rustic bread and grissini (breadsticks) that already adorned the table. We were to have a multi-course tasting menu, the Maitre D’ explained as his staff brought the first dishes, and we needed to ensure that we tasted all of the chef’s creations.

[I won’t post pictures of everything we ate, just my top dishes. I’ll also refrain from over-explaining. The pictures speak for themselves. Words would only diminish…]

Freshly made bread, foccaccia and grissini.

Freshly made bread, foccaccia and grissini. Candlelight.

Quail egg and truffle.

Quail egg and truffle.

Eggplant breaded and with tumeric.

Eggplant breaded and with turmeric.

Chicken liver with red onions.

Chicken liver with red onions and brioche bread.

The best risotto ever made.

The best risotto ever made. Oh, the consistency!

Pici pasta with lampredotto (tripe!).

Pici pasta with peas and lampredotto (tripe!).

Tortelli with duck.

Tortelli pasta filled with duck.

Peach and lemon sorbet dessert. Divine.

Peach and lemon sorbet dessert. Divine.

Raspberry chocolate dessert. Heavenly.

Raspberry chocolate dessert. Heavenly.

The Maitre D’ very kindly explained each of our 13+ courses as we savoured them. He also paired the dishes with locally produced wines, some even from Spaltenna’s own, very limited production. Red wine, white wine, vin santo. It was glorious. By the end of our meal (which I completely finished, thank you very much) I was on a food high, lulled by the serene atmosphere (and the wine), senses heightened by the flavours, colours and textures and smells.

Never had I taken part in such a luxurious dining experience. Ever.

Now, I’m no restaurant critic. I don’t have a ton of experience with “fine dining”. You don’t have to take my word that the food was exquisite and so was the service. But I’ll tell you what really put this dinner over the top for me: Chef Borraccino convinced me. He convinced me.

Not with words, but with flavours and textures and combinations and smells, he had me eating things I would have previously turned down with a sneer and a shudder: shrimp, oysters, chicken liver, tripe, tomato soup and pigeon. Instead, I was asking for more and taking detailed recipe notes.

Our dinner party with Chef Borraccino, after the meal.

Our dinner party with Chef Borraccino, after the meal.

At the conclusion of the meal, Chef Borraccino came out to greet us and speak with us a bit about his professional background and his vision for what a dining experience should be. What struck me most of all was his passion. It was after midnight. He had worked all day, literally slaving away over a hot stove, preparing an inviting array of dishes for us and the other patrons. After all that, his eyes still sparkled as he spoke about his food, as he delighted in our delight at his cooking.

After an experience like that, the Frazzled Chef in me wants to hang up her apron.

If you’re interested in having a similarly delightful experience (and you are), then check out Castello di Spaltenna’s website here.

*       *       *

Now for the thanks, first in English, then in Italian.

[I’d like to extend my thanks, first and foremost to Sonia Corsi, who organized my evening at Castello di Spaltenna, to the Director, Alessandro Ercolani, for so graciously hosting us for the evening, to the Maitre D’, Andrea Giubbilei, for his welcoming and informative presence, and to the rest of the team, especially Donato La Torre, the second-in-command in the kitchen. Last but not least, I’d like to thank Executive Chef Fabrizio Borraccino. Your work is spectacular, and the passion with which you do it is inspiring.]

[Vorrei ringraziare in primis Sonia Corsi, che ha organizzato la mia bellissima serata presso il Castello di Spaltenna. Grazie anche al Direttore, Alessandro Ercolani, per la graziosa accoglienza. Grazie anche al Maitre, Andrea Giubbilei, per l’impeccabile informativa sui piatti e mille grazie anche al resto dello staff, soprattuto a Donato La Torre, il braccio destro dello chef. In fine, grazie di cuore allo Chef, Fabrizio Borraccino. Il tuo lavoro è spettacolare, e la passione con cui lo fai m’ispira.]

100 Days of Travel Happiness


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Buongiorno readers!

It’s been awhile since you’ve heard from me (unless you follow me on Facebook, which I update a little more regularly). Why the wait? I’ve just returned to my home and native land after 100 days of travel. That’s over three months of backpacks, suitcases, foreign languages, foreign currencies, new sights, sounds smells and experiences. It was phenomenal. I visited 7 countries (knocked a few off the Travel Bucket List), took 13 flights, explored a part of Italy I hadn’t been to before, ate many new foods, met many great people and re-connected a bit with the life I love in Siena. A very productive 100 days, don’t you think?

Sunset over Istanbul

Sunset over Istanbul

Here are some of the highlights in no particular order:

- Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

- White Nights cruise in St. Petersburg, Russia

- Visiting the sobering site of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland

- Seeing the Palio for the 4th time in Siena, Italy

- Visiting the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin, Germany

- Having a traditional Turkish Hamam treatment in Cappadocia, Turkey

- Being a dinner guest at the exquisite Castello di Spaltenna in Gaiole, Tuscany, Italy

There will be more about these great experiences to come. I promise.

Awaiting the start of the Palio. (It's not quite the same as my logo, but almost!) Photo credit: Marco Zamperini

Awaiting the start of the Palio. (It’s not quite the same as my logo, but almost!) Photo credit: Marco Zamperini

100 days away from the hustle and bustle of my life in Canada also gave me a bit of time to reflect on the direction I want my life to take in the near future, and the types of things I’d like to dedicate my time to.

Some of you may have noticed a new addition to the menu bar of this blog: the Hire Me menu. Yes, that’s right. I’ve hung up my shingle and am looking to dedicate more of my time to freelance writing and translating. Over the summer I’ve been lucky enough to secure a few new content creation and translation projects, but if you or someone you know needs to hire a writer, think of me.

In June I also started the wonderfully confusing process of trying to obtain a work visa to head back over to Italy for another extended period. (In my books, 3 months no longer counts as an extended period!) The process has been slow, bureaucratically baffling, frustrating and typically Italian. Right now things are at a standstill and I really don’t have any indication as to whether this visa will be a part of my near future or not, but when I do, I’ll keep you updated.

Cecilia Rigacci: Passion and Palio


Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Earlier this summer, I wrote a few posts about Il Palio di Siena: my first Palio experience and a bit of a history of the Palio. If you’ve read them (go read them!) you’ll know that the Palio happens twice a year: July 2nd and August 16th. I didn’t want to leave all the Palio blogging leading up to the one in July, so, through the lovely way that everyone knows everyone in Siena, I managed to wangle an insider Palio experience to share with you here. Pronti? Ready?

In a little bottega in a little corner of a winding street in Siena, chiocciolina (member of the Snail contrada) Cecilia Rigacci has her workshop. It’s there that she paints and restores the drums used in various contradas. She also makes barberi, Senese toys, and it’s where, last summer, Cecilia Rigacci masterfully designed and painted the Palio banner for the 2013 Palio d’Assunta (August).

While the Palio was back in her workshop for restoration, I had the chance to drop in one morning and see it up close. I also got to chat with the artist and learn what goes into making such a prized banner: passion, skill, love, history, respect, hope, tears, laughter, heart. And in Rigacci’s case, lots of rock music. (It helps her work).

But you don’t just volunteer to paint the Palio, turn up your Zeppelin and take up your paintbrush – on the contrary. An artist has to be selected by the city of Siena, then supplied with a piece of Florentine silk made especially for the Palio (80 cm x 250 cm), draw up a plan, gather materials, then put paintbrush to Palio and get working.

When she heard that she had been selected to be the artist for August 2013, Rigacci’s heart soared. “It was incredible,” she said.

It was the opportunity that every Senese artist dreamed of. It was her chance to do something for her city. “I wanted this Palio to give people a reason to love Siena,” she said. Plus, it’d give her the chance to give life to the Palio design she’d had tucked away in her mind forever.

Rigacci's Madonna (Virgin Mary)

Rigacci’s Madonna (Virgin Mary)

Rigacci’s Palio includes many elements starting with the Madonna, who has featured on every Palio for centuries, because Siena the city is dedicated to her. A young Page, which represents Siena, offering up the 17 contradas to the Virgin Mary. Trailing from the Page’s pillow is a green ribbon, with the words “O Maria la tua Siena difendi”, a popular Senese invocation to the Madonna to defend “her” Siena. “When a Senese hears this, it brings a shiver,” she says.

Rigacci's Page, offering all 17 of Siena's contradas to the Madonna.

Rigacci’s Page, offering all 17 of Siena’s contradas to the Madonna.

Rigacci explains further, “We’re [the Senesi] not asking…we ask only for that protection that she [the Virgin Mary] has always given us. We’re already aware [that she protects us].”

Other features of the Palio include, in the bottom left corner, two warriors holding Siena’s flag, the Balzana, and in the right corner, a small corner of a zebra striped building – the Duomo di Siena. When she told me this, I commented that it’s only fitting that for a city that lives for its history, the elements of the Palio would be all historical.

Warriors with the Balzana

Warriors with the Balzana

DSCN5387

Rigacci agreed, “We go forward but always passing the message [history] behind. It’s a sign of respect towards those who left us these messages. Memory adds on itself. When we don’t know how to go forward, we look backward.”

In addition to watercolour, Rigacci used a variety of types of embellishments: peridot, coral (at the urging of her son), gold and pearls – all natural materials. “I didn’t want the banner to be polluted with false things. Authentic from beginning to end,” she says.

Details

Details

But there’s more to this Palio than what meets the eye. With Siena, there always is.

“I wanted to give more value to what I was creating,” says Rigacci. So she asked that each of the 17 contrada send her a piece of one of their oldest contrada flags. “Flags count so much for we Senese,” she explains. The contradas responded very favourably to her request, and provided her with a piece of historic material to sew into the Palio, behind their contrada’s symbol.

The symbols and meanings that feature in this Palio are endless. Some are profoundly personal for Rigacci and her family, while others are recognizable and shared by all people of Siena.

Rigacci's Palio - August 2013

Rigacci’s Palio – August 2013

All in all, Rigacci spent two and a half months perfecting her Palio after the unadorned banner was delivered to her. When it finally came time to unveil it, days before the race, Siena was awed. Although her contrada didn’t win her Palio, Rigacci’s father’s contrada, the Onda (wave), did.

Listening and watching Rigacci speak about her Palio was a wonderful experience for me. I was enthralled by the passion with which Rigacci spoke of her city and her work, and I marveled at the tender way she regarded her Palio, not because she was proud of a job well done, but because she was so happy to have been able to give something to the city she loves so much.

Artist Cecilia Rigacci [From www.oksiena.it]

Artist Cecilia Rigacci
[From http://www.oksiena.it

What does she say of the whole experience?

“It was unbelieveable,” she told me, smiling wide. Having finished her work as a Palio artist, I wondered if she was sad. It was obvious that she put her heart and soul into this Palio, and after the restoration it would be hung in the Onda’s museum of victories, where she probably wouldn’t see much of it. Her response?

“Realizing a dream isn’t extinguishing it, it’s living it fully […] I still haven’t stopped having those feelings.”

***

I was eager to share this with you, readers, not only to give you some more info on the Palio, but also to give you a bit of deeper insight into the people of Siena, to help Cecilia Rigacci on her quest to give people a reason to love Siena. It’s the passion of the people and the respect for history and tradition that draws me in and keeps me coming back.