Podere Fontedi di Pera
It is hot here in Lucknow. I just returned from Mumbai after visiting my son and although Mumbaikars like to think it is hot there-I did not really mind that sticky heat. It was not bad under a ceiling fan out in the open, as I discovered while having a fabulously decadent chocolate mud pie and bad ice cream in the open-air cafe at the iconic Prithvi theatre. Sitting under a fan out in an open verandah in Lucknow means you are suffering moving air at 43 degrees !
Some days back I logged into facebook and found a picture of my friend, Patricia’s house in Tuscany posted by someone who had visited them. It brought back a flood of memories of our visit to this beautiful place two years back- I had written the post but it was incomplete and languished in my computer. I dug it out and relived those memories:
‘Get off at Grosetto,’ my friend Patricia had instructed my daughter, Geetika and I on our trip to Tuscany. We had earlier got on to a train from Rome, found our seats next to a couple of generously proportioned women who spoke mainly Italian but communicated with us in sign language, and headed north-east to our destination. At the tiny station of Grosetto it was with both joy and relief that we greeted the waiting Patricia, looking as lovely as ever.
35 kilometres and almost 45 minutes later we were driving in through the iron gates of an old stone house called ‘Podere Fontedi di Pera’ in the middle of the countryside of Val d’Orchia, home of Patricia, her husband Maurizio Zanini and Paddy, their friendly Golden Retriever.
The gravel covered path, lined with tall cypress, a signature of the region of Tuscany, ended in the double- storeyed, stone house. It was only when we walked through the house and onto the rear terrace that the Tuscan countryside, in all its glory, unfolded before our eyes: undulating tree covered hills in the distance, a scattering of the iconic cypress, a rolling valley and, meandering through its centre, the river Orchia glistening in parts where it caught the rays of the sun, hiding now and then behind ominous dark clouds.
‘Often, during leave when we came back to Italy, we would come to this region to visit the San Antimo abbey,’ the Zaninis tell us later. This beautiful abbey to which we are driven to later by Patricia, is located quite near the Zanini home and lies about 9 km from the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route to Rome. A former Benedictine abbey, it has been occupied, on and off, by small groups of monks of different orders, the latest being friends of the Zaninis.
‘ When we saw this property up for sale on the internet we were posted in Bolivia.’ Maurizio, now happily retired, was with the Italian Foreign Office and posted as Ambassador of Italy to that country. ‘We made a trip to Italy, and when shown the property, loved it and bought this house with its surrounding land. This was in 2004.’
‘Archives show this house was built in 1745 by a farmer on the lands of the landlord of
Sienna,’ the Zaninis tell me.What was originally the barn is now the living room with an interesting stone ceiling with large concave sections. No changes have been made to it. ‘This ceiling is called ‘soffitto a vela’ meaning sail ceiling-built like sails of a moving ship. The farmer must have been a very good mason !’ Maurizio says.’We simply had the ceiling sandblasted to clean it.’ At some point this building also served as an extension of the Montalcino hospital.
‘The house was simply built with blocks of stone without a foundation. So we had to insert an iron wall and build a terrace to hold the house in place,’ says Patricia. The renovations took about two years and were completed in 2010. This kind of barn was typical of this area- the open barn which housed cattle and an oven were downstairs. A stone staircase led to the living areas of the family. It consisted of 4 bedrooms with a kitchen in the middle and no bathroom at all. ‘We converted the 4 bedrooms into 2 large bedrooms with a bathroom, one master bedroom with a big bathroom and an ensuite dressing room,’Patricia says. The groundfloor has a large,open plan kitchen, a utility room and the living and dining areas.
They have renovated a small cottage next to the house to include a cozy bedroom with a picture window that frames the Tuscan countryside and a bathroom.
Patricia has been a fabulous tour guide for us, driving us to picturesque vineyards that make Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s finest red wines and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, another highly regarded red wine. She drives us to the quaint hilltop village, Montalcino and to another pretty town, Pienza that also makes the Pecorino cheese. Knowing my interest in old homes she has taken us to visit two old houses of friends of hers in Tuscany. She had also booked all our train tickets for our onward journey to the Amalfi coast.
After a long drive back, over a fabulous dinner of pressed octopus and a sea food pasta cooked by Maurizio, he tells us that Eastern Italy, where he comes from, they never really ate pasta. Their food consisted mainly of rissotto, soups, beans, vegetables. Very rarely did they eat meat. Pasta, a more modern addition to their food, is, of course, cooked often now.
However, when their family of four children, two sons-in-law and two grand children get
together during Christmas, a whole pig is roasted by Maurizzio and the men. This is their very special occasion, after all.
What a fabulous job the Zaninis have done-restoring the old house-allowing it to blend with the beautiful landscape ! Thank you,Patricia, Maurizio for sharing this treasure !
Coming back to India and Lucknow and food, yesterday was Eid and we enjoyed excellent food including the sewain in a string of homes we visited. Lucknow is nothing if you cannot enjoy its food !
See you next time !