Saturday, April 23, 2011

Eating until you can eat no more: Dinner at Montiaone.

We had a very stressful end to our day in Florence, but were determined that, regardless of what happened with Hayley and Ryan’s hire car, we were going to make dinner at Montaoni Agritourisma. Agritourisma are essentially farm stays, where you can stay bed and breakfast and eat in a dining room usually part of the main house. The most appealing feature of this for us is that because they are on working farms, the food at these restaurants is almost exclusively produced on those farms. We arrived a little late, and found the surroundings a little disconcerting at first. There was only one other table of guests, who were locals doing some work at the farm and having their meals in the dining room. There was also a table set for an elderly man who came in soon after we arrived and sat watching a ‘Red Faces’ style variety show on the tv in the corner of the room, occasionally dropping off to sleep over his meal. Soon the food started to appear. First a plate of ribbon-thin slices of pancetta and salami; a big wedge of a firm goat’s cheese, mild but with the characteristic goat’s cheese tang to it; a bowl of giardineri and slices of a cottage loaf. The cheese was so fine and perfect we had to ask, in our limited Italian if it was made on the farm, and received a slightly offended “Yes, of course”. Next was a course for the meat-eaters (we had been told to expect lots of meat), a soft-consistency chicken liver pate on small pieces of toasted bread topped with a peppery olive oil. We were already beginning to get the idea that this would be a very large meal, and were trying to pace ourselves, but it was very difficult, everything was so delicious. There was also a carafe of a Sangiovese style wine which was kept topped up (I was driving so cannot report on its quality, but David tells me it was a very nice light red).

Our waiter appeared next with a large platter of pasta sheets tossed with a mushroom ragu. The smell of the sauce was fantastic – rich and earthy, and it tasted just as good. The sheets of pasta were silky and melt-in your-mouth. As we were dishing that up, out came two more platters: a ravioli with a spinach and ricotta filling topped with butter and sage leaves and another of meat-filled ravioli with a rich oily meat ragu. We were momentarily taken aback, so much food! The pasta was a revelation, so often we hear that there isn’t any point to making your own fresh pasta: it’s time consuming we are told and the dried product is equally good. But I’m here to tell you that after this dinner I am determined to master it – I know you can buy fresh pasta at some delis, but I have never tasted it as good as this.

So after the pasta we were feeling pretty full, we all knew we shouldn’t have kept eating it, but it was soo good – there was even a brief race for the last spinach tortellini (Hayley won). Our young waiter cleared our tables and returned with a dish we had been eagerly anticipating: Fagioli Sorana or Sorana Beans. These creamy white legumes are grown only in this particular valley in Italy, their flavour apparently attributed to the rich soil and something in the mountain spring water (San Pellegrino mineral water is bottled in the next valley over). Apparently they are so prized that they were used as a currency around here several hundred years ago. Today they are sought after by chefs and sell for around E25 a kilo, and here we were in a humble agritourismo sitting down to a huge plate of them. They were joined by a plate of thinly sliced, pink vitello, a platter of roasted goat and chicken and roasted potatoes. The beans lived up to their hype, the vitello was delicious and melt in the mouth, but I found the goat and chicken a little too dry for my taste.

But wait there’s more – just as us meat-eaters felt as if we were going to burst (and the vego’s ate their way through a plate of beans) came the piece-de-resistance – the chingale, wild boar braised with the most basic of seasonings for hours until it was falling apart. We had been promised it would be on the menu and it was, but I kind of wish it had come earlier. Of course we ate it all, but its strong smell, very gamey flavour and saltiness didn’t sit very well after the many courses which preceded it. It was almost a relief when our waiter placed a bowl of ricotta and a jug of honey on the table which signalled the meal was at its end. I hadn’t eaten ricotta except in this way before, and it is a very nice ending to the meal, except it wasn’t and the final hurrah was slices of fresh-out- of- the-oven ricotta cake dusted with icing sugar, a bottle of throat-grabbing grappa and one of a much smoother vincotta and the offer of coffee (which we very reluctantly refused).

The dinner at Montiaone was everything we had hoped to experience eating with the locals in Italy. As Ryan said after the pasta course, you wouldn’t get a better dish of pasta in any of Melbourne’s finest Italian restaurants, and it certainly was better than the average suburan Melbourne Italian eatery. And because everything we ate was produced locally it was probably one of the best souvenirs we’ll take away from Italy. The entire meal at Montaoine including all the alcohol was E22 per head – around $35 AUD – (of course we left more) and as we wound our way down the very steep windy road we all agreed that someone should tell them they really could charge tourists like us much more for such an experience.

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