NATIVITY SCENES AND PRESEPE HUNTS FOR CHRISTMAS IN TUSCANY

I'm no friend of nativity scenes, but there is no Christmas in Italy without a presepe (I could also do without Christmas, but that's a different story). Tuscany's creches come in all shapes and materials and whilst the manger scene at my in-laws is made of plastic other households show off elaborately carved artisan figures under their Christmas tree. However, thmost exciting cribs are found outdoors or in former barns and pigsties, where real people freeze off their sandal wearing feet for their method acting performance of Mary or Joseph (the newborn is mostly fake though). 

Perhaps my Christmas crib aversion has to do with being a mother and knowing that the last thing you need right after having given birth is an incessant stream of strangers popping in to say hello. All the jolly men and rejoicing animals jamming it around the crib and everything Maria probably hoped for was a female friend to help her get up - unless immaculate conceptions not just lead to high-speed pregnancies but also culminate in pain free births as a reward for foregoing a sex life. 


Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli (today in the Uffizi)
It's a man's world 

As a mother I also know that kids love nativity scenes. Especially if they show off great lighting effects or are constructed with Lego. Years ago our children were glued to one of the creches exhibited at the monastery in Abbadia San Salvatore on southern Tuscany's mount Amiata. I had time to admire the 36 impressively sculpted columns in the abbey's crypt whilst the kids tried to stop a sheep on short circuit from eating up baby Jesus. It was a perfect Christmas day, most of it spent skiing on an empty Mount Amiata followed by a 21st century salvation of Gesù bambino.

After all these years in Italy (and after having been raised as a catholic in Switzerland) I must have seen millions of cribs. Whether artisan sculpted, assembled in China or painfully paper mached by the pupils of our Tuscan elementary school, the experience of admiring them doesn't foster kindness in me. In some occasions, the result is the exact opposite and my personal irritation levels hit peak scores when the artistic installations block out already scarce parking spots in medieval hilltop towns - just when everybody needed a last minute Christmas present. 


Nativity scene and road signs in Monticello Amiata


Nevertheless we've decided to look at a couple of manger scenes up close this holiday season to introduce our children to the gender issue. All the animals and gay looking angels don't make up for the fact that there is only one woman in the play; and she's obviously never been meant to say anything. Being eight and ten years old, my daughter and son are old enough to visit some of Italy's best known nativity scenes so as to reflect on the number of male and female actors in leading and supporting roles and to compare the result with the ratio encountered in the latest Hollywood productions (they can't wait!). 

Using a scientific approach we'll be starting at Siena's biblioteca degli Intronati, which exhibits the hand painted nativity scenes depicted in some of its oldest books (the beautiful public library also has a great children's book section). From the Middle Ages in Siena we're off to the Renaissance city to see one of the few Christmas parties I keep coming back to: Benozzo Gozzoli's extensive and colorful frescoes in the Magi chapel in Florence's palazzo Medici Riccardi (one of the must sees on my three days in Florence with kids and the Firenze card itinerary).

After that we'll drive to the sea to compare our Renaissance data with the cast of the presepi viventi performed in Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano on the Monte Argentario peninsula. This stop will also give us the time to collect some drift wood to build our own presepe on my favorite Tuscan beach

Then it's back inland to Casole d'Elsa near Siena, which promotes itself miglior presepe vivente in Italia, Italy's best living nativity scene. I would have thought this title goes to Matera in the Basilicata where a good thousand people participate in a four day nativity enacting, but since Matera just left Siena empty handed after winning thtitle for European Capital of Culture 2019, I'm overjoyed to hear that the best live act of the holy family is still happening in down-town Tuscany. 

From Casole we might consider a pilgrimage along the 70 kilometers of the newly found 'Strada dei Presepi' between Florence and Pisa or head to Umbria, which is not just Italy's region with the highest number of saints but thanks to St. Francis also the birth place of presepe making. But by that time the kids will probably be ready to go back to school. 

  

TUSCANY'S BEST RESTAURANTS: MICHELIN STARS 2015

Roberto Rossi and team in the kitchen of restaurant Silene
Chef Roberto Rossi at Michelin
starred restaurant Silene in Seggiano


If you ask my Tuscan native about memories of his best meal at restaurant Silene - the latest arrival among southern Tuscany's Michelin starred restaurants - he won't recite the dishes of an epicurean tasting menu but deliver the account of an epic football game right after his best friend's wedding lunch. 

Challenged by a group of local teenagers during a post wedding cake cigarette break, my Tuscan native and friends were drunk and stuffed with Roberto Rossi's gourmet food, but must have managed to look smart nevertheless when entering the village's football pitch in their designer suits. Legend has it that team Armani managed to battle off the assault of the sober 17-year-olds, but seemed on the verge of a break down when one of the wedding guests summoned for a penalty had to excuse himself behind the goal post to throw up a mix of vintage Brunello, wedding cake and homemade tagliatelle with locally sourced funghi porcini. He managed to keep the remaining courses to himself and - according to his friends - kicked a penalty that 15 years later is still being talked about by the inhabitants of the small Tuscan hamlet. But remain from bringing the issue up next time you order Silene's tasting menu - the locals may have a differing view. 

But to focus on stars not scores, Tuscany's gourmet classification is still led by Florence' Enoteca Pinchiorri created by chef Annie Féolde - the sole Tuscan restaurant with three Michelin stars. Valeria Piccini is coming close though from the south of the region with her Da Caino in Montemerano tightly holding on to two Michelin stars, whilst Winter Garden by Caino - her new culinary outpost at the St. Regis hotel in Florence - already gained its first.  



My Tuscan native overjoyed to meet the great Valeria Piccini
 at Extra Lucca (no football involved this time round)

The Michelin star ratings 2015 highlight a full six freshly starred restaurants in Tuscany (new entries in red in the list below), whilst the gourmet temples with two stars remain four: Valeria Piccini's Da Caino, Bracali in Massa Marittima, Arnolfo in Colle Val d'Elsa near Siena and Viareggio's Piccolo Principe, which gained its second star right in time for the season 2015, whereas Il Pellicano on the Monte Argentario coast lost one out of two Michelin trophies since its talented chef left the famous hotel to bring the kitchen of the Mandarin Oriental up to scratch in time for the opening of Milan's Expo 2015.


TOSCANA ( 1 ,  4 ,  25  )
LocalitàProv.StelleLocale
CortonaARIl Falconiere
FirenzeFIEnoteca Pinchiorri
FirenzeFIOra D’Aria
FirenzeFIIl Palagio
FirenzeFI NLa Bottega del Buon Caffè
FirenzeFI NWinter Garden By Caino
CalenzanoFI NLe Tre Lune
Tavarnelle Val Di PesaFI NLa Torre
Tavarnelle Val Di Pesa / Badia a PassignanoFIOsteria di Passignano
Castiglione Della Pescaia / BadiolaGRTrattoria Toscana-Tenuta la Badiola
Massa Marittima / GhirlandaGRBracali
MontemeranoGRCaino
Porto ErcoleGRIl Pellicano
SaturniaGRAll’Acquacotta
SeggianoGR NSilene
Marina Di BibbonaLILa Pineta
Forte Dei MarmiLUBistrot
Forte Dei MarmiLULorenzo
Forte Dei MarmiLULa Magnolia
LuccaLUButterfly
LuccaLU NL’Imbuto
ViareggioLU NPiccolo Principe
ViareggioLURomano
Tirrenia / CalambronePILunasia
PesciaPTAtman
Casole D’elsaSIIl Colombaio
Castelnuovo BerardengaSILa Bottega del 30
ChiusiSII Salotti
Colle Di Val D’elsaSIArnolfo
San Casciano Dei Bagni / FighineSICastello di Fighine



For more info about southern Tuscany's Michelin starred restaurants click here. And in case you still wonder about the final scores of the best dressed football team of the nineties - they obviously won (3-1). A victory that made more than up for having to throw out their grass stained Armani suits. 



Team Armani after football game and wedding banquet at Roberto Rossi's Silene



















ITALY's (NON-EXISTENT) OLIVE HARVEST 2014

Hail damaged olives with olive fruit fly punctures - harvest 2014
Sniffing out the good olives - not that there were many...

A combination of bad weather (very mild winter 2013/14 followed by a rainy summer) has led to Italy's most disastrous olive harvest of the century. Right, the century is still young, but we can only pray that we'll never have to see our grove looking as miserable as this autumn until the end of it. To explain what I'm talking about here some facts and figures from the last three olive harvests in our Tuscan grove and the resulting yield of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO):  

In 2012 we picked 542 kg of olives and pressed 74 kg of EVOO (yield 13%).
In 2013 we picked 713 kg of olives and pressed 78 kg of EVOO (yield 11%).
In 2014 we picked   90 kg of olives and pressed   8 kg of EVOO (yield  9%). 

The 2014 olive harvest is just over a tenth of last year's, but we have to consider ourselves lucky that we actually managed to taste our EVOO 2014. Many olive farmers through Italy didn't even bother to start picking. To save the savable, we spread out the nets as soon as our village's olive press opened in the first half of October. But considering the generous use of EVOO in Tuscan cooking, the picked 8 kg will get my in-laws and our family of four not even through the next two months even though the production of our fifty trees is for private use only. 

Incredibly enough the year started off looking like a glorious vintage. At least to me from my breakfast view point at the table under our Moraiolo tree. Most olive groves are made up of several varietals of olive trees and every year the yield differs between the various types. This spring the Moraiolo olive tree under which I have my daily cappuccino has been bearing olive flowers and later olives like never before. 

A twig with olive flowers and a table with fallen blossoms in May 2014
The flowers of a Moraiolo olive tree in our grove in spring 2014

Water drops on green olives after summer rain in a Tuscan grove
Plenty of  olives on our Moraiolo tree in September

#Febothecat and a pumpkin on the table under our Moraiolo olive tree.


However, other varietals were barren looking all through summer -  mainly the early ripening Leccino trees, which are normally laden with black olives by mid October. But as bountiful as the Moraiolo tree may have looked in late spring and summer, once the harvest started the majority of olives weren't on but already under the tree. 


Infested and shriveled olives lying on the ground
Infested olives of the Moraiolo varietal dropped off before start of harvest in mid October

So what happened? And who is the culprit? 

There are countless olive pests that can kill a whole crop. But it needs a working together of various climatic factors to get them going. The mild temperatures during last winter didn't manage to kill off harmful insects and bacteria and the humid spring and wet summer set the ideal conditions for them to proliferate madly.

THE OLIVE DISEASES

Well known all through Southern Europe, the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae or Dacus oleae) is always a threat for Italy's EVOO production. Lower lying groves near the coast are normally most affected, but this year trees located inland and higher up were also hit hard.

An insect called tignola, the olive moth (prays oleae) is a lesser known plague, since its damage is normally small enough for most experts and producers to agree, that it is not necessary to intervene. Not this year though! 

Fungi belonging to the Anthracnose family have made the disaster come full circle. The secondary infections had an easy game on the already ailing olives in most Italian groves (for an overview of the most important olive diseases and disorders read on here).  


A bottle of freshly pressed Tuscan olive oil on a table with a ginger cat on it and a great view over the hills
Our freshly pressed Tuscan Evoo 2014 - as precious as never before


EVOO is often affectionately called liquid gold. Never will this have been so true as in 2014, since the scarce harvest will skyrocket the prices of Italian extra virgin olive oil. European olive oil at large may see a rise in prices since Spain - the world's biggest producer - is having a difficult year too, because of the extreme drought in the south of the country. 

I'm not a winter person (I've moved to Italy for a reason), but this year I'm praying for a thorough cold season with low enough temperatures to kill each single insect running havoc in Italy's olive groves. Clearly, the winter should be properly cold but not too freezing since otherwise the baby will be thrown out with the water. This happened in the notorious winter 1984/85 during which not just the olive plagues but also most trees in the groves had been razed to the ground by a three week long spell of Siberian temperatures. After this year's non-existent harvest I am starting to grasp the sorrow and despair farmers must have felt when cutting down the dead trees in their groves in the following spring. 


Olive nets and combs lying on a table with a view over the Tuscan hills
Much ado about nothing: packing up the nets and harvest utensils after a mere day of picking

For more EVOO insight read my olive harvest guide for dummies (in some years we do actually get to pick something) or see how the olive trees are pruned every year by the end of winter. 

FIAT 500 IN PITIGLIANO - TUSCANY REVISITED

Considering Pitigliano's breathtaking setting on top of a steep and crumbly Tuscan tufa stone formation, it's surprising that the town hasn't become one of the major film locations for Hollywood productions in Tuscany. Montepulciano and countless churches and hamlets in the cypress lined Val d'Orcia have prominently featured in films like Gladiator, the recent Twilight or - obviously - Under the Tuscan Sun. 

But Pitigliano's low exposure in the film world may change after its appearance in the latest Fiat 500 commercial. 







No Photoshop needed, since Pitigliano's town center and the views from and onto the town are just as beautiful as seen in the fun commercial. Balancing on its rock, the southern Tuscan town is the ideal destination for a romantic getaway - with or without the little blue pill. 

Read What to do in Pitigliano to find recommendations for best hotels, restaurants and sights in towns and great organic winery visits nearby.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...