Holy frozen tundra has it been COLD for the past week. I know, I know…it’s winter. It is supposed to be cold. And yes, I am the person who detests hot weather. And yes I will be complaining much more loudly and often once that sultry Virginia weather kicks in this summer. Still…it was been awful freaking, record-breakingly, bitter cold recently. Perhaps that is why I have found myself thinking fondly back on a trip that we took to Italy last October. That was where I had my first taste of Pears with Pecorino & Honey. I saw it served both as an appetizer and as a light dessert. The juicy ripe pears combined with the salty Pecorino cheese and the sweet honey was just sublime.
Fresh, simple. locally sourced…seems to describe everything we ate on that holiday. And I can truly say, we didn’t have a bad meal the whole time we were there, whether we were dining in a fancy pants restaurant or a little local trattoria. Except for the bread that is…what a disappointment. In my visions of Italy I would always be sipping wine at a little table with some lovely cheese and a loaf of bread. Well, truth be told, I did have a few where I was zipping around on a Vespa with a bottle of wine and a fresh loaf of bread in tow (Ciao!) … but anyway, my expectation for the bread was way high and it tasted pretty abysmal. Well, in Tuscany proper anyway. Tuscan bread does not have any salt in it. Bleck! Apparently back in the day, their old enemy Pisa, set up a blockade of sorts which made it difficult to acquire salt. So the Tuscans started making bread without it and have kept up the daft practice even though salt is readily available. Talk about fearing change… But besides the bread, it was a fantastic trip. I have been dying to tell you all about, so I think I will take advantage of this weather which certainly brings hibernation to mind, to stay put (under a mound of blankets…) for a few moments and take the time to do just that over the next few posts.
We arrived in Florence mid-October which meant the majority of the flood of summer tourists had subsided. The weather was absolutely fantastic, still warm during the day but a bit chilly in the evenings, though in light of recent weather around here, perhaps I will revise my opinion to say it was a bit “balmy” in the evenings. We rented a car and drove north to the Italian Riviera portion of the Ligurian region where we planned to spend 3 days visiting Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, the “five lands”, is made up of the five towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare which seem to cling precariously to steep cliffs jutting up from the sea.
The towns, along with the surrounding hillsides and coastline make up The Cinque Terre National Park which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No car traffic is allowed in the villages but no worries, it is easy to travel between them by train or boat taxi. We had booked a room in the lovely Luna di Marzo hotel which is located in Volastra, a really small village, still in the park, located just up the cliff from Manarola. The views from the room were simply breathtaking!
The husband and I were really psyched because not only was Cinque Terre amazingly beautiful, but the park has hundreds of miles of hiking paths which shoot dramatically skyward, wind through the hillside vineyards and olive groves and descend steeply to twist along rugged coastal footpaths. We love hiking and couldn’t wait to hit the trails and take in all of that the area had to offer.
Luckily I had heard about Pall Forloney, the Trekguyd and was able to hire him to take us on a trek of all five towns and I’ve got to tell you this was the highlight of our holiday! Originally from Rhode Island, Pall has been living in Riomaggiore for over 10 years. I would say that he has all the knowledge of a “local”, which he certainly does, but it is more than that. He is so enthusiastic about the area and has been traversing it for so long, he certainly knows more than the average local. He proved invaluable to us during our visit. Not only did he expertly guide us (and yes there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to hike it…or perhaps I should say a “savvy” vs. a “clueless” way…) on a small, personal, day long trek through all five towns and the surrounding hillsides,
but he was also a fount of information on everything from local history,
to Sciacchetrà wine production,
on to general hiking tips and even recommendations for the best restaurants that the 5 towns had to offer. He took us to the best gelateria in all of the five towns! Not to mention he is a truly fascinating guy and great fun to hang around with. All park passes, train tickets and boat taxi fares were included in the price of his tour.
Having booked with Pall on our first day in Cinque Terre, we were able to benefit from all of his knowledge and make the most of our next two days there. Even after Pall’s tour was officially over, he was still trying to make sure we had a great visit. So, when the husband and I let him know we had never tried the local Sciacchetrà wine, he arranged to have us meet a friend of his, Roberto who owns the Terra di Bargòn vineyard.
For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Sciacchetrà wine, it is the white wine that has been cultivated and produced in Cinque Terre for many years. It is odd that there even is wine production in this area. Remember, the towns are situated on rather steep cliffs. Those industrious Cinque Terre dwellers from long ago literally carved out the terraces on which the vineyards grow and then undertook the backbreaking challenge of harvesting the grapes, carrying them on their backs down along the narrow, cliff’s-edge paths to town.
But that wasn’t the end of the hard work for them. Then they had to dry the grapes. Sciacchetrà is a straw wine meaning that the grapes are dried to concentrate their juice. Though often thought of as a dessert wine, Sciacchetrà is considered a wine of meditation and is excellent paired with cheeses. We were very curious about it to say the least after hiking through the vineyards all day. With hardly any notice, just a quick phone call from Pall, Roberto was able to come meet us at his Cantina where the Terra di Bargòn Sciacchetrà is produced and cellared. What a treat! Roberto is quite a character. He told us all about the history of that rare wine, how his family came to produce it and gave us a first hand account of the labor intensive cycle of production.
But better yet, he let us taste the Sciacchetrà of the year (there is a two-year fermentation) as well as a 2009 reserve and a 2003 reserve. It is difficult to describe the taste, but I would say sweet but not too sweet and silky smooth with hints of honey and apricot. All I can say is that it is unique, delicious and definitely something you should sample. (Sciacchetrà is not widely imported to the US. Terra di Bargòn will ship to the US through their website if you are interested. Better yet….go visit them in Cinque Terre.) There are not a lot of folks in Cinque Terre today that are willing to do the kind of work that is required to make Sciacchetrà. Roberto is perhaps one of a dying breed. He offered us keen insight into a way of life which has been handed down for generations in Cinque Terre. Unfortunately this way of life and this special wine is in danger of being lost forever, but not if Roberto has anything to do with it. The authentic cultural experience of tasting the wine and meeting Roberto was essentially priceless!
Cinque Terre was absolutely amazing. I am so glad that we decided to give it the time it deserved and did not try to do it as a “day trip” from Florence. It would not have done the slow-paced vibe of the place justice. Now, that being said, I do understand that in the Summer months, especially August, the place is over-run with tourists, so you might want to plan accordingly. What you must do is book a trek with Pall Forloney, the Trekguyd. While you are traversing the hills, he will have you up to speed and CT savvy in no time flat. And make sure you sample that Sciacchetrà wine while you still can. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy this simple, yet elegant dish of Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey.
It will have you dreaming of long and lazy, sun drenched days. When you gaze out your window, you won’t see a frozen, barren, arctic waste land. No. You’ll see a beautiful green and rugged coastline framed by the turquoise sea. Just make sure you don’t shatter the illusion by sneaking a peek at your thermometer!
Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey
- 2 pears
- 3 Tablespoons Honey
- 1/4 cup shaved Pecorino Cheese
- handful of roughly chopped pistachios
- freshly ground pepper
For a Fresh & Light Spring/Summer Dish:
Core and slice pears. Scattered shaved Pecorino over pear slices. Warm honey and drizzle over pears and cheese. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Season with freshly ground pepper if desired.
For a Warm & Comforting Fall/Winter Dish:
Core and slice pears. Place on broiler rack. Scatter shaved Pecorino over pear slices. Broil until cheese is melted and slightly browned. Warm honey and drizzle over pears and cheese. Sprinkle pistachios over the top. Season with freshly ground pepper if desired.
Pears with Pecorino, Pistachios & Honey brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)