My trip to research new itineraries for my clients continues into southern Tuscany. Pienza will be my home base for the next three nights as I return to favorite haunts and explore new discoveries the area has to offer.
Between Rome and Pienza, there is a lot to see. My first stop was at the Parco dei Mostri or Monster Park in Bomarzo. This fascinating little side trip, seemingly in the middle of nowhere is only an hour north of Rome, and makes for a great spot to stop and stretch your legs. The “garden” is a shady stroll through a “sacro bosco” or Sacred Woods. Around every turn of the path, appear gigantic statues and sculptures carved from the local stones. These mythological and fanciful creations are amazing in proportion and number. The garden was created in the 1500’s, fell into disrepair and the monsters lay in wait, hiding under overgrown greenery for 300 years. It was rediscovered in the 1930’s and developed into a park in the 1950’s. Today, an entry fee ensures its upkeep. It is an interesting and surreal stop.
Next stop: Bagnoregio, a city like no other. Bagnoregio has been called a dying town, but really it is far from that. It is uniquely situated on a rocky promontory which can only be reached by footbridge. (Be prepared for an uphill trek.) The city is now charging an entry fee, as they should, to help pay for the work (such as retaining walls) to keep this town alive. And alive, it is. Though it is very small, on this beautiful, cool fall day, several eateries were operating and filled with lunch time patrons. We in fact, had a really enjoyable lunch with sausages and veg cooked over the open fireplace, along with a mixed bruschetta platter to start. So delicious. After lunch, a stroll was in order. It doesn't take long to stroll the short side streets and take in the beautiful views to be had from nearly every dead-end street, and in a town like this, yes, they are all dead-end streets.
Pienza is one of my favorite places in all of Tuscany. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the way the city was designed back in the mid 1400’s. The hotel I love to stay at has windows which open to a stunning panoramic view of the Val d’Orcia. When I wake up here each morning, the first thing I do is throw the windows open and lean out the windowsill. The view is the definition of Tuscan countryside.
Small, and completely walkable, Pienza’s tiny side streets are charming and filled with eateries and great shopping. Pienza is Cheese Central; home to Pecorino, one of the most delicious and essential of Italian cheeses. This is also Honeyland, with so many varieties to choose from, it makes my head buzz. (Get it? Buzz….bees….honey?) Pienza is also located between Montalcino and Montepulciano, two of the best known towns for wine. It never ceases to amaze me in Italy; no matter how small a town is, there is never a shortage of great food and wine. What better place to stay while exploring this area of Tuscany?
Join me, won’t you….on a future trip to Italy? Let’s explore lower Tuscany together. The towns prominently listed in guidebooks are wonderful, but so are all the great places off-the-beaten-track. Let me take you there.
Before living in Italy, honey was that pale, sticky stuff that came in a plastic bear. It was okay. I used it in my tea when I was sick and occasionally in a recipe. Ho hum. But living in Italy changed my outlook on many things, and looking at honey in a whole different way was one of them.
When I had my red wine epiphany (described in a previous blog post), my crostini were covered in not only melted gorgonzola, but drizzled with honey. What? Honey on cheese? New concept. Then I went to a book club meeting and the hostess served a plate of sliced pears, yummy cheese and a small pot of honey on the side for drizzling. She told us her mother-in-law (Italian) had given her this honey, and warned that some people might not like it as it was quite strong. I peeked in the pot to find the honey was dark as night! What kind of honey could this be? I drizzled it on my cheese and fruit, took a bite, and my eyes rolled back in my head. Yes, it was that good. I asked her what kind it was but she couldn’t remember…something that started with a “c”.
Fast forward to a weekend trip in the Italian countryside: Pienza is a favorite little town. It’s in Tuscany, but on the edge enough to make it a relatively easy drive from Rome. When you are in Pienza, you are in Cheese Land; home to wonderful Pecorino. And since all Italians know how well honey goes with cheese, you are by default also in Honey Land. Seriously, once you’ve arrived to the Land of Cheese and Honey, why bother driving back to Rome? Stay overnight. Indulge. We did…....many times.
Charming shops line the very few available streets in this tiny hilltop town, and they are filled to overflowing with cheese and honey and other delectables. At one particular shop, we were given a generous cheese sample topped with a drop of dark honey. I popped it in my mouth and thought, “Is this it? This is it!” I asked the proprietor for the name of the honey. “Corbezzolo,” came the reply. Yes, it starts with a “c”! Since then, I’ve always had a jar of corbezzolo honey in the pantry. It’s forte (strong), sharp, sometimes nearly bitter, but always sweet. Does that even make sense? And it’s perfection with cheese.
Not long ago, I discovered another fabulous honey product. It’s called Abamele and it hails from the island of Sardinia. This small jar of deliciousness is honey cooked down with orange slices. Also, bee pollen has been added. Orange marmalade has always been a favorite of mine, but this dark, dense, intensely flavored version is phenomenal. It’s almost like caramel with more than a hint of orange. The bee pollen and orange bits gives it an interesting texture and it is incredible drizzled over my homemade cheesecake. My initial taste sample was over fresh ricotta cheese, and I had to stop myself from hogging all the samples. The ingredient list contains three items: 95% honey, bee pollen, oranges. Amazing.
I found Melata honey for the first time in London of all places, at a fabulous food market that I used to shop at regularly when we lived there. When I inquired where it came from, I was told he imported it from Italy! Since then, I’ve been able to find it on trips to Rome, and various friends there have been lovely enough to pick up jars of it for me and save it until I come visit. It’s a wonderful all-around honey; good not only on cheese but in sweet applications as well. It has a beautiful well-rounded flavor that is deep without being too strong (but notice how dark it is). I can eat by the spoonful….and I do. I’ll be right back.
Another wonderful honey product is il mieleaceto. This little lovely bottle comes from the Modena area which is famous for its balsamic vinegar. In fact, mieleaceto is basically balsamic vinegar cooked down with honey. The resulting inky syrup is nearly indescribable. It’s sweet of course, but you get that vinegar hit at the end; a truly awesome combination. This is lovely not only on cheeses, but on steak, risotto; darn near everything. The bottle is soooo small. I’ve been hoarding it. Note to self: Next time….buy bigger.
And on my most recent trip to Rome, I discovered Miele di ‘Erba Medica. I was at a food festival booth featuring all kinds of honey. I was told this particular honey has anti-inflammatory properties and that one should have a spoonful “after sport”. I play tennis. I run. I am…..of a certain age….where anti-inflammatory anything is beginning to sound pretty good. I recently read an article about how wonderful honey is for curing cough; in fact, some studies show it is better than cough syrup. I used to wake up in the middle of the night quite often with a dry throat and an irritating cough. But, I honestly have been letting a spoonful of this honey drip down my throat before going to bed every night, and it hasn’t happened since! I also recently read another article about a particular island in Greece, famous for the longevity of its residents. The secret to their longevity? When asked, their reply was a spoonful of honey every day. Of course they were referring to a specific honey available only on their island. But nevertheless, the way I figure it, if a spoonful of honey will relieve my aching joints, get rid of my cough and help me live longer, I’m all for it. In fact, maybe two spoonfuls would be even better. I’ll be right back.
(Don't you love my honey pump? Thanks Holly!)
Writing this article has brought back such fond memories of Pienza.
I’ve just decided to add it to an upcoming tour itinerary.
Won’t you join me? Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about upcoming tour availability and itineraries.