There is a sizzling passion for rural life in the Maremma of Tuscany.
In the town I stayed called Scansano, there’s this one lady and all she does is bake cakes. She is very old, but her brick oven technique is the best, so the cake monopoly in town is all hers. There’s an old poet who lives on a farm, and every time he sees you, he makes up a poem for you on the spot. I didn’t get to meet him, but Marta told me he always always does. There’s also a man name Firenze who I met, and all he does is make sheep’s cheese. Does he ship his pecorino to restaurants around Europe? No. Tuscany? Not even. He only sells within 10 kilometers.
In the center of this storybook of characters beams the medieval village of Scansano, a faraway fairytale kind of place to spend an evening. That is, if your fairytale includes good wine, good food, and enchanting company.
The moment I got off the train in Tuscany and looked Marta Pellegrino in her big blue, sultry, smoky-lined eyes, I knew we were going to be friends. Marta, who owns Antico Casale di Scansano spa resort with her quite adorable parents, was born and raised in Scansano. Marta is the one who told me about and/or introduced me to all these characters. She went to Paris for University, she’s lived for years in other parts of Italy, and she has traveled all over the world, but no matter what, her soul is sewn to the Maremma. With an somewhat-New York disposition (but she would never, EVER live there), a great sense of humor and a passion for traveling solo, Marta has played a leading role in my experience in Tuscany.
One evening, Marta took me out in the main part of Scansano. It went a little something like this:
First we visited Caffe Dell’Arco for cappuccinos, because for some reason I was falling asleep. Apparently two is never enough. In Italy, you don’t take your coffee to go in a big paper cup. You stand right at the bar and finish off your caffeine. It’s too small to even bother sitting down.
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Then we visited the frantoio, just to see—this isn’t a usual stop for people out in the evening. It’s a big olive press where olive harvesters come to unload bags of fresh olives and turn them into the most reliable Extra Virgin Olive Oil in town. As we walked from one place to the next along the narrow cobblestone streets, Marta seemed to know just about everyone.
Around 5 pm when kids get hungry start to whine about it, there’s a name for what adults feed them: Merenda. It’s a light snack of ham and cheese, salami, bread and nutella, or something of the sort. Merenda has trickled up to adults to keep them from whining too, so for our next stop, that’s exactly what we did.
We visited Marta’s friend Simone, who owns a mini market with everything from laundry detergent and potato chips to gourmet cheeses and fresh cured meats. He prepared some slices of meat and cheese for us, and I prepared to dig in. What I did not prepare for were the anchovies. People in Italy love anchovies. On three separate occasions, this one included, an eating partner has gone into great detail as to what they love about anchovies in a specific dish. It’s one of maybe 5 foods I’m opposed to, but when Marta looked me at me with her big, glossy eyes and said they’re her favorite and I must try it on bread, just this once, I was in no place to argue.
It wasn’t my favorite, but once I started to pretend it was just really salty lox, it was totally fine.
Afterwards we went back to Caffe Dell’Arco for Cinquino, which is a little shot of wine that folks often get before dinner. It’s cheap and fast, so it’s also a good way to get drunk before you know it, Marta said. This seemed to be the most hopping place in town. Five men sat outside smoking and drinking, and inside there were couples sitting for dinner, people hanging around the bar, even ordering cappuccinos at this hour still.
The woman behind the counter was pregnant, so I’m not sure what she’s still doing in Italy. No wine, no cappuccino, no wine, no cigarettes, limited quantities of olive oil… what did she have left?
After Cinquino we took a stroll around the charming, sepia-lit streets of Scansano. Buildings were chipping away in the most delightful way. Down alleyways you’d look and see stairs going up and stairs going down, leading to someone’s home, or from the looks of it, maybe to nowhere. Marta pointed out her apartment, in the quietest, quanitest little corner you’ve ever seen, overlooking her Maremma.
Although on that Wednesday night in Scansano you could hear a pin drop, Marta told me I’ll have to come back the last week in September; every year there’s a big festival on the streets. Everyone opens up their doors and serves beer and wine and food, and people celebrate drunk on the streets.
Sounds like the Lower East Side, NYC every night if you ask me. Just 3 blocks away. Yet for some reason, I would come all the way back to Tuscany for it in a heartbeat.
Today’s WIN ITALIA Question:
(To win luggage filled with authentic souvenirs from Rome and Tuscany)
What’s your favorite little town in the world?