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Moscadello and Cantucci: Milk and Cookies for Grownups

Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Montalcino for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Tuscany: wonderful restaurants like Montalcino’s Enoteca Osticcio Osteria, fabulous wineries like Nostra Vita and fascinating historic sites like the Monte Oliveto Maggiore. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food and wine culture of this amazing place.  I’ll be teaching a similar course in Provence this spring (June 2-8): Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes

By Mindy Stern


You’ve seen kids wearing shirts that boast, “My grandma went to Italy and all she bought me was this lousy T-shirt.”  I’m not that grandma.  I want the people I’m abandoning to look forward to my absences, and to welcome me home with open arms. Finding gifts for my family has become part of the adventure - things with a touch of the exotic to help them feel a little closer to what I saw and smelled and did on my travels.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes when searching for the “perfect” gift.  This is the story of how I left home alone, meandered to Tuscany for a travel-writing class, and searched for presents that should make each recipient look forward to my next escape as much as I do.

This Italian journey began, and would end in Rome, where I visited a dear friend and soaked up a little of the Eternal City.  Determined to fall into a rhythm, I was out the door early to navigate the city’s spider web of streets.  Though it’s rare to see a tree at street level, cascades of fragrant plants adorn the sides of buildings whose wide wooden doors hide courtyards, parking stalls, and apartments emitting tempting wisps of braising onions.  Rome also has markets, like the Campo di Fiori, where I picked up bags of multi-colored spice blends and dried porcini mushrooms to cook back home.

Walking on the cobblestones for miles each day, I began accumulating mementos for each member of the family.  In a toy store, I picked up a hand puppet and recognized a blonde Cappuccetto Rosso, the Italian Little Red Riding Hood.  Next to her in the bin was a white-haired Nonna, the grandmother, and a third doll, Il Lupo, the Big Bad Wolf. 

The merchant, a tall, mocha-skinned man with tight curly hair and a noble nose, asked, “What age is the child?” 

“She’s two years old,” I replied.

“Too young for these hand puppets,” he said.  “They are for older children.  Let me show you something she will enjoy.”   He produced an all-in-one cloth doll. 

My smile widened as I watched the puppet morph from Cappuccetto to la Nonna to the Wolf by raising or lowering the skirt or the bonnet – perfetto!  Neli Thea would love this.

With only a few hours left in Rome, the pressure was on to find gifts for my adult sons.  Impulsively, I darted into a grocery store and requested a bottle of Aperol and another of their best Limoncello, two Italian liqueurs they love.  I stored all of the gifts in a duffle bag that I’d brought along expressly for this purpose, and would continue my journey to Tuscany with just a carry-on bag.  But as I finished packing it hit me – Aperol is sold in many US stores, and this Limoncello, wasn’t produced by a proud family using lemon trees planted a hundred years ago.  This was just supermarket stuff, and I sensed both gifts would have to be replaced by something with a better story.  The question was what, where, and how.

It was time to travel to Tuscany.  Montalcino, located 1,800 feet above sea level, is renowned for its red Brunello wines and the town boasts many wine shops, all of which ship for free if you buy a dozen of their choice bottles.  Sometimes overlooked is the white Vermentino, from coastal Tuscany about an hour away.  My family eats mostly dairy, vegetables, and fish.  With little or no beef in our diets, this fruit forward wine would go well with our typical meals.   At dinner one night I had snapped a photo of a wine I liked, and then found it in a local shop for under 10 euros.  I was almost done with my quest.

Of course, many Tuscan meals include pasta, sometimes more than one dish.  I enjoyed pastas with meat and pastas with mushrooms - so many kinds of funghi! After devouring one particularly savory dish at Taverna del Grappolo Blu, I asked Luciano, the proprietor, what kind of mushrooms and what other flavorings made it so delicious. 

Luciano said, “Porcini mushrooms and a touch of white truffle cream, Crema di tartufo bianco.  You may not find it here in Montalcino but if you go to Siena or Buon Convento you may have more luck.” 
It turns out the local supermarket carried small jars of this concentrated truffle flavor.  Scooping up one jar for each son and one for me too, my shopping was nearly over. 

The days are long at this time of year and in the lingering light, I sat in a wine bar’s balcony looking at the wide, panoramic view of verdant fields and soft hills beneath a blazing magenta and orange horizon.  Throughout Italy, it’s traditional to drink fortified wine for dessert.  The waitress suggested an alternative to Vin Santo, a dessert wine that’s especially popular in Tuscany and whose name literally means “holy wine.”   Instead she offered a sweet Moscadello, its amber color perfectly matched to the sky.  The chilled wine arrived with a plate of little biscuits, “cantucci.”  A novice to this practice, I asked why my two companions and I were presented with six cookies but only one glass of wine.  Her answer both surprised and delighted.

“You dip the cantucci into the wine and share the glass,” she instructed.

Aha!  This was milk and cookies for grownups, a treat to be enjoyed with others.  My search for one last gift was over.  I’d bring home a bottle of Moscadello and a bag of cantucci so my family could share the tastes I experienced in Tuscany.

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