A Tuscan Borgo, Pienza

Last year, in May, after five days in Florence, my husband and I spent three days in the Tuscan countryside. We stayed in Cortona and from there we took some daytrips. Cortona is a wonderful Medieval town itself and I shall, in the near future, write a post about it. Today, however, I want to share with you my day in Pienza.

Pienza is in the province of Siena, in the magnificent Val d’Orcia. In 1996, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site, and in 2004 the entire Val d’Orcia was included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes.

Hard to believe, this was my first time in Pienza. During my freshman year as architectural student, I had taken a class on History of Renaissance Architecture.

My 30 years old textbook

Pienza, which is considered a model of Renaissance architecture/urbanism, was studied in great detail.

So much so, that once I was there I felt like I knew the place by heart: the piazza, the chiesa, the palazzo; all, except for the view of the valley that, from 1600ft above sea level, was simply amazing.

Until 1462, the village was called Corsignano and it was the birthplace of Silvio Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II. In February 1459, Pius II visited his native borgo (village) and decided to rebuilt it as his ideal residence. He hired the most famous Florentine architect – at the time –   Bernardo Rossellino.

The Pope and the architect, without disturbing the original medieval village, which is aligned along a road on the crest of the hill, freed a large area – closer to the Orcia Valley – to build a group of monumental buildings. The architectural landmarks are: Cattedrale dell’Assunta (Cathedral), Palazzo PiccolominiPalazzo Borgia, and Palazzo Pubblico, all surrounding the magnificent Piazza Pio II (Pio II Square). The Piazza, unlike others, has a trapezoid shape, emphasized by herringbone paving divided into panels by strips of travertine. The travertine is also used to shape a circle within the paving.

Do you know that if the façade of the cathedral was laying flat on the square, the occhio centrale (the central eye, the round window) would line up with the circle on the paving?

The cathedral is located on the hill’s ridge and turns the apse to the valley and  over the ridge. 

Arriving in the square, the façade is framed between the diverging walls of Palazzo Piccolomini and Palazzo Borgia.

The space appears contained and grandiose at the same time. On either side of the church, two large openings hint at the vast open space of the valley. And how could I not mention the pozzo (well), off the center, close to the Palazzo and in perfect proportion with the whole . . . my favorite element.

Il Pozzo

The church, inside, is divided into three naves, the largest one in the middle, but all three of equal height. The design was inspired by both the German Hallenkirchen  – Pius II had visited the German church in Austria – and the description of Leon Battista Alberti’s ideal temple.

After visiting the church, my husband and I visited Palazzo Piccolomini, which is truly beautiful. As you enter, you are welcome into a spacious courtyard.

While the palazzo may appear similar to its contemporary Florentine palaces, with its three quadrangular shaped floors and courtyard, it has an new unique element: a panoramic loggia.

The loggia occupies the entire North façade and connects the palace to the giardino – remember, Frank Lloyd Wright was not born yet!

The Sala delle Armi overlooks both the courtyard and the loggia, where you will be amazed by the expansive view of the Val d’Orcia and the Monte Amiata.

As usual, my husband and I had lost track of time. After 3:00pm in Italy – take note of this – it is hard to find an open restaurant. So, at 2:55pm, the only place that agreed to let us sit was “Sperone nudo”. We sat outside in the small square and although the service was a little rushed, the food was good and the atmosphere enchanting. The table next to us was occupied by American tourists who after a brief conversation, realizing that I was an Italian living in the States, asked for suggestions on the menu`. Luckily, they were all pleased with mine/their selections!

We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the borgo, stopping for gelato – of course – and browsing all the little shops.

Pienza is also famous for its homonymous Pecorino cheese. I bought two round cheese blocks and I gave them to my brothers as a gift.

Before leaving we wanted to enjoy one last view of the surrounding landscape and we could not have found a better place than a  walking path, next to the town walls on the south side . . . beautiful!

Narrow street to the walking path

How lovely would be to wake up every morning to this view!

The Mediterranean Diet. . . and a recipe too!

Did you know that with the New Year 2.6 million people started a diet? And did you know that 92% of those 2.6 million are already off the wagon?

I am not kidding, I was just reading an article about it.

I know for experience that it is not easy to stick to a diet. I tried them all, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach and so on.

What throws me off is the idea of dieting itself; the idea that you have to constantly think about the food you can or cannot eat, the measuring, the fat, the sugars, the carbs. . . wow that is a job  in itself!

I finally told myself, I am Italian, from Southern Italy, my mom used to cook delicious food everyday and still, she looked great and definitely she was never on a diet, so what’s the secret?

The secret is that healthy eating was a way of life, it was the way my mom grew up, it was part of her culture.

The secret was what, in the late 1950, the American professor Ancel Keys  defined as the Mediterranean Diet (Dieta Mediterranea).

Professor Keys was with the Allied troops in Greece and then in Southern Italy where he noticed the absence of obesity and that the rate of  heart attack was  very low.

He also noticed that the diet of these areas was completely different from the American diet.

From these observations, professor Keys, later developed a full study around the Mediterranean Diet.

The history of the Mediterranean cuisine is complex and connected to the people who lived on the coasts of this sea.

The model of The Mediterranean Diet has its roots in the Ancient Greek which deeply influenced the Etruscan and Roman cultures.

These cultures, in fact, cherished all products from agriculture, in particular wheat, olives and vines. The cuisine was distinguished by the use of vegetables, fish, fruit and dessert. These were then integrated by cheese and small quantity of meats.

The meals were consumed three times a day : colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch) and cena (supper). This is how they are still consumed in Italy

This diet soon clashed with that of the Barbarians which invaded Italy in the High Middle Age (around 560). The Barbarian populations were mostly nomads, their diet was primarily based on gaming, fishing and wild berries. They also bred pigs and used their meat, but also their fat. The cereals were primarily used for the production of beer rather than bread.

This dietary style spread partially in the original Greek-Roman style.

The regions in the North of Italy quickly adopted the new diet of the barbarians, while the populations of Central-Southern Italy were disinclined to these changes and remained faithful to their cuisine, maintaining their identity and originality.

On November 16, 2010 the Mediterranean Diet has been recognized by the UNESCO as a virtuous model of health and intangible cultural World Heritage.

The term “diet” (dieta) refers to the Greek etymon “diaita” or way of life (stile di vita). The recognition from the UNESCO is precisely the recognition of a set of practices, expressions, knowledge and skills, that have allowed the populations around the  Mediterranean Sea to create, over the course of centuries, a synthesis between the cultural environment, the social organization and, the art of eating.

Image from "The Oldways"

The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes:

Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts

Using healthy fats such as olive oil

Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods

Limiting the intake of red meat

Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week

The late addition of getting plenty of physical exercise and drinking red wine in moderation, makes of this ancient diet a true model of healthy and modern lifestyle.

We can all try to stick to these simple guidelines and still eat flavorful foods – Italian of course!

One of the secrets is to keep your recipe simple. My mom never used more than 5 ingredients in her recipes!  Also use  local, seasonal ingredients, watch for your portions, and take the time to really enjoy every bite of your meal. Every meal in Italy is a ritual, you sit at the tables with your family and you share the food but also the worries and the happy moments of your day.

Let’s give it a try! To get you started I will share the recipe of the Minestrone.

The Minestrone well represents the style of the Mediterranean diet. It is in fact a complete meal with its combination of fresh vegetables and greens, the use of beans, which provide the necessary protein, and small quantity of carbohydrates. You can opt to use small pasta (like ditalini) or rice. You can also use barley or farro.

Ricetta del Minestrone

Ingredients for 6

4 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil

1/2 onion finely sliced

1 carrot diced

1 celery stalk diced

1 large potato peeled and diced

1/2 lb. Swiss chard chopped

1/4 of Savoy cabbage chopped (original recipe uses lettuce)

2 ripe plum tomatoes seeded and chopped

4 oz. string beans (cut into thirds)

6 leaves of basil chopped

2 cups of canned  cannellini beans

salt and black pepper to taste

6 cups of water

Rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional – I always add it when I use rice)

1/2 lb of short pasta or 2 fistful of rice/person

Directions:

In a large pot heat 4 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and sautè the onion, and  basil. Let the onion softened and take a little color then add all the vegetables except for the tomatoes and the beans.

Add salt and pepper, stir, cover and let cook on low heat for 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the water, stir, cover and let simmer for 2 hours.

The next two steps are optional, they are my personal preference.

After one hour add the rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and continue cooking for 45 additional minutes. The cheese rinds melt and make the minestrone more flavorful.

In the bowl of a food processor add half of the cannellini beans and 3-4 cups of the vegetables from the pot. Run the food processor until you obtain a creamy mixture. Add the mixture back into the pot, taste for salt and pepper and add as needed.

Cover and let simmer for additional 15 minutes.

After a total of 2 hours, add the pasta (or rice) and the remaining beans. Cook until the pasta is ready. (If you opt to use rice, let cook without stirring – not even once! – for 15-20 minutes. Do not overcook!)

Serve warm with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with Parmigiano cheese.

Perfetto!

NOTES:

I particularly like to use rice whose starch, along with the creamed vegetables, gives the minestrone a slightly creamy texture.

Barley and/or farro require a longer cooking time. If you opt to use one of these two grains,  you can add them to the vegetable mixture along with the  creamed vegetables, and then cook for 1 additional hour.