April 05, 2011

Benvenuta Primavera!!

Spring may have officially started over a week ago, but here in Florence, it wasn’t until this past weekend that we actually felt it. It's time to head to the hills and enjoy spring's first fruits and say goodbye to the last traces of winter. Heading east of Florence, there is an area locally known as Casentino. With its two medium-sized mountain ranges, Casentino is home to the headwaters of the Arno river. It is also home to one of Tuscany's largest national parks. Casentino's western most ridgeline, and the one closest to Florence, is capped by the peak Pratomagno ("great meadow").

Birch forest in the Vallombrosa

These hills are a naturalist's paradise, and it's a great place to see the season's first wildflower blooms. Leaving Florence, my wife and I take the long way out to Pratomagno, climbing through the Vallombrosa (“shady valley”). Throughout most of the year, this valley lives up to its name. It's often dark, and much colder than the surrounding area. In the summer, Vallombrosa becomes somewhat of a retreat for Florentines trying to escape the city's heat. The upper part of the valley is covered in a dense birch forest, also shaded much of the year. Now the birch, still without their leaves, stand motionless as the spring light dances between them. Spiritual, and it leaves no wonder why Vallombrosa's Benedictine monks built their impressive monastery here, nearly 1000 years ago. The monastery is impressive and you can still visit it today, but my wife and I have other objectives. 
Bucaneve at the base of Pratomagno

As we near Pratomagno, the flora and fauna change significantly. Near the peak in the higher elevations, the bucaneve flower (or literally “the one that puts holes in the snow”) bloom in sunny patches where the snow has receded. The air up here is much lighter and cleaner than down in the Valdarno ("Arno Valley"). Not only is the air cleaner, the water here is pure, potable and some of the lightest and best tasting I have ever had. There are several springs that flow as Artesian wells, tapped directly from the mountainside by the locals. Many often come from the valleys below, always with empty jugs. 
Viola Mammola

As we continue to descend the eastern ridgeline, the forest changes. Pine, oak, and chestnut now dominate. Dotting the understory are patches of small violet flowers (viola mammola). The flowers themselves were often used in local medicines, mostly to calm nerves as a sedative. Be warned, they also have purging and laxative effects. Dosage is everything!!
Tuscans exclaim how these little flowers puzzano (“stink”)! They do stink. They stink like a horse's stall. However, smelling them also reminds me instantly of some of the strong floral scents in some sangiovese wines. Don’t misinterpret my meaning. I love the local sangiovese based wines and their aromas. Anyone who knows me, would never argue my conviction to and love of this grape. But, it's important to understand aromas in wines "remind us" of other compounds in nature. Sometimes these compounds may not be something we associate with pleasing aromas, but the wine itself is pleasing nonetheless (with or without its stink!). So, much like the Sauvignon Blanc/cat pee association, the aroma of a horse’s stall coming from your sangiovese wine may not be a bad thing!

Descending the mountain further, we spot the long wispy plants, which subconsciously may be the grail of our hike. With its woody vine, and spiky, almost pine needle-like leaf, the wild asparagus plant is hard to mistake. The mixed forests at these lower elevations abound with it this time of year. The wild version is much thinner and generally more tender than its think, domesticated cousin; however, the flavor of the wild asparagus tend to be incredibly more intense. At this point, hiking is secondary. My wife and I spend the next hour or so foraging.

Ciuchino on the farm
Heading back to Florence, we make one last pit-stop. We visit a local farmer we know, and grab some fresh eggs, home made ricotta, and fresh baked bread. The eggs seem the size of tennis balls and their yolk is more orange than the sun. What this mountain air does to these hens is beyond explanation, but I'm happy it happens (even if I can't explain it). The fresh ricotta we pick up is from local sheep, and produced with a technique most haven't seen for 40 years. Frittata with fresh wild asparagus is on the menu tonight! Mmmm ... spring is finally here!