Writings on living in Casa di Simonetta in Adine

A life in Chianti

Dr Renee Rust (October 2019)

It was an easy decision to live for a few weeks in the house of Alison Greenand Barry Gould, in 11th century Adine in the Italian Autumn of 2019. Easy yes … but a rare privilege. Friends were coming to stay in the two apartments adjoining the main house and we had our cherished friend Christine Basson with us for the full time in Chianti. On our first arrival Adine was not easy to find as the countryside of Chianti is deeply forested, and the roads wind backwards and forwards, willing you to keep driving, not always sure whether the landmark you saw a while ago is the one you should be looking for. The olive trees and vineyards, greys and dark greens, cling to the hills, and surround the age old stone casalari, nudging each other in cleared openings. It is as if the houses have always been there through the ages, choosing hill tops and inviting people to live in their stony interiors. We found ourselves innamorate, enchanted. The sunset on the terrace of the beautiful La Casa della Alison invited addiction to sharing a glass of wine. Dionysus rejoiced.

Justine, the daughter of Christine stayed for the first 10 days. A deliciously enveloping beginning to our stay. We enjoyed her youthful energy and basked in the admiring stares of street walkers on seeing her long legs trace the routes through shops and narrow streets on our visits to the nearby villages of Chianti. Her confidence at enjoying anything new and exotic, and her skill at preparing meals proved a delight for her elderly housemates. We loved her and the time she spent with us.

The consumption of wine with our first guests in Grande apartment, South Africans, Johnny, Sue, Mark and Robyn, linked in cousinhood, grew in dimensions on the terrace of La Casa Alison, as Chianti wines, sourced, bought, praised and shared, ruled our easy conversations. The breath-taking western skyline at dusk on the terrace of La Casa Alison with hues of Chianti light, silhouetting the tiled roof tops and neatly trimmed Cypress trees, became edged in memory and simply improved the moment of living. Robyn and Justine cooked and served superb meals on the terrace. We dubbed it terrace bliss.

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Christine and I from the beginning of our stay, realised we were living with an Italian Stallion. Niekie talked with all and the Italians commended him on the use of their language; a repute he carried well. He became our gatherer of information and fresh produce. He sourced tomatoes, fresh porcinis, figs, pecorino made by a local priest, superb olive oil and brought ‘home’ the stories of the Chianti contadini wrapped around these wondrous treasures. He dried tomatoes, cooked it in vinegar and water for one minute and soaked it in olive oil; delicious with bread and prosciutto. However we were rationed and the merits of using this hard-earned tomato delight with the meals Christine and I cooked in our homely cucina, were discussed before arbitrary use.

The one thing we immediately understood was that everything and everyone brought a story to life in Adine. We patted the dog of the German lady, living on the third floor of the house up from the square, but sensed that a pat and a friendly ‘hello’ was pretty much as far as that relationship would go, until we were surprised by the human need we all have to talk about the sadness in our lives. We became good listeners in Adine, a quality in life if given the opportunity one should not neglect. We picked up on importanti doings like hunting in the one-sided conversation with the man who lived in the apartment on ground level of the building opposite the square. He told us that they shoot 1, 500 wild boar, cinghiale, every year. It left us wondering how any boar or cervo could escape this vicious onslaught in the hunting season. Then again we were made aware of the damage these animals cause to vines and other produce in the valleys. It is illegal to hunt at night and yet we heard the gunshots in the darkness of early mornings. The abysmal cries of a night animal in the valley below our window kept us awake, until we were told that it was the mating call of the deer. We were overjoyed to associate the noise with a creature in search of a mate and not one in pain from a bullet hole. So sleep was serene again in the otherwise peaceful quiet of the night.

Alissa, our petite neighbour, living in the apartment up the narrow little street from us became our joyful friend; an American lady with Italian authenticity who loves living in Adine. She was the bearer of information on every query; the anecdotes once again giving us insight into the intricacies of living within communities with histories of centuries. Being the blacksheep of the family was either a title that you deserved or gossip bestowed on you. Alissa went out of her way to introduce us to her friends of many years of living in Chianti. Michele was an especially good Italian friend and with delight she would describe his height as just a fraction above hers, which she explained, if standing alongside her they resembled the tiny icing figures on a wedding cake. Although Tim the husband from America was due to arrive within a few days we detected vibes of a special kind between the wedding cake figurines. On an evening we enjoyed a gourmet meal cooked by Alissa in her cosy apartment, and met Franco and the formidable Mimma, famous chefs and illustrious members of Chianti verve. The story of Franco’s love, at the age of 87, for the serpente of Tuscany was real and the bite he sustained a few days prior to our dinner evening, kept him in hospital for a day or two. He described it as an experience not to be missed in meaningful existence; the hallucinations, the nurses in the hospital and the knowing that sacred venom had entered his spirit were likened unto having Dande’s words echoing in your head.

The ever present authentic culinary panorama of richness and pure tastes, dating back to the times of the Etruscans, largely based on prosciutto, cinghiale, breads and pastas, pecorino, ricotta, porcini, tartufo, olive oil, haughtily displayed and cooked everywhere, remained throughout our stay a delight we savoured at every opportunity; the Chianti Classico wines worthy accompaniments. The balanced diet … a glass of wine in one hand and olive oil in the other; a learning curve prevailed of how it is done and how it should be done and then only in Tuscany. Vines and olive trees; the origins of the Chianti l’ambiente. Pliny, the Elder (23-79 AD) hailed wine and oil as the two liquids the human body appreciates most. It would not be true to form if I do not take this opportunity to throw in the inevitable mention of archaeological signs. The most ancient archaeological proof of wine dates to 7000 years ago in Neolithic villages and much later continued to fulfill the exotic needs of the Etruscans of Tuscany. A prehistory culture of intoxication with medicinal overtones which proves usage in Chianti was a gift from the ancient gods. Still on an archaeological note, Christine and Niekie, my fellow walkers along the narrow podere roads, most times in intense morning light when the mists clear, showed momentary interest in the Early Stone Age, Acheulian, and Middle Stone Age chert flakes, that lie await all over, until there is a ‘come now’ … ‘keep the pace and do not graze like a cow’. An indulgence for sure. How does one bring an insight of signs underfoot of ancient living of more than 400 000 years ago?

Fermentation starts when bunches of grapes picked by hand land in bins stacked on trailers behind the narrow tractors in the vineyards. We valued being here in the time of the vendemmia, the harvest of grapes. You smell it. Attentively giving way to these activities on our daily walks, we at times walked in between the rows of vines and chatted to the cheerful pickers. There was a commitment in the air, even the gardener Stefano gave priority to his duty to bring in the harvest. Niekie cut the lawn and weeded where necessary. Our treasured La Casa Alison had a neat and trimmed look when Matts and Brigette Ruhne from Terreno Wines near Greti, came for lunch. We were reciprocating with Rust Basson hospitality to an earlier visit to their farm. A generous gift of superb Terreno wines was enjoyed ‘on the terrace’. We were joined later by Pepe and Niki Bosini who came all the way from their farm in Umbria on this day to be with us. They spent the night. Christine and I served simple traditional Tuscan food, prosciutto of the highly valued black pig (free to roam the fields), lots of tomatoes, mozzarella, bread and olive oil. It was tasty and genuine and so was the friendship and easy conversation. Matts and Brigette stayed until the shadows reached across the lichen spotted, hard-wearing tiles of the terrace.

Niekie’s relationship with Santino, the caretaker on Albergo le Costa, piqued his interest and perceptions to the many factors that affect how things grow in Chianti. Santino’s tomatoes had the sweet taste of elixir, fresh or pulped to produce sugo finto. His unrefined olive oil, in which our bread was soaked each evening had a taste to last us to the end of our days. Niekie negotiated with Santino to supply a carro of legna to see Alison and Barry through the winter months. Santino introduced us to Nicola, the energetic, generous, ambiguous member of the Lapis family of Poggio di Polo, and his sad eyed son, Lorenzo. They farmed two hectare of wine grapes and a few more hectares of olives. We were invited to share an evening with them in Nicola’s cellar cum cucina with large forno and heavy makeshift tables on the terrace overlooking vineyards and olive trees. Good red wine is bottled on site by Nicola and his team. Bunches of fresh grapes hung overhead, strung up to dry before making the legendary Vin Santo wine in November. That evening we ate homemade ricotta, freshly sliced prosciutto, porcinis picked the previous day in the forests and pecorino made by the local priests.

Ten days later, Ryk and Rhode our longstanding friends and neighbours in South Africa, arrived after driving all day from lake Como. They took an unintentional detour, ending in Siena. Needless to say Siena was not on their route to Adine. We were relieved to have them safe and we cooked an evening meal to welcome them in La casa Alison. As Ryk is an esteemed wine grower/producer in Elgin and Stellenbosch, Niekie wished to share the traditional ways of Chianti winegrowers and arranged another evening with the Lapis family. They finished harvesting that day, and the spirits were high. They arrived in their boots and working cloths; even the dogs were sticky from being in and out of the vineyards. An evening ensued full of delicious tastes, Italian resonances and laughter. The meal started with plates of tiny rolled pieces of la copra cheese accompanied by several uncorked bottels of Lapis red. Wooden platters of prosciutto crudo, sliced pecorino, fresh bread to soak up the olive oil, dishes of chilli verdure verde and homemade pasta, followed by large platters of roasted cinghiale and cervo al forno, and after verde l’insalata to assist the digestive juices. The meal ended with a dolci dessert; fresh berries enfolded in dough and baked. Ryk’s communication with the Italians was entertaining and it extended to ‘mooi man mooi’ to the delight of our companions. The company, wine and food were excellent. A good evening!

Christine, Niekie and I cleaned, cooked and endeavoured to make the stay of the continual flow of visitors to La Casa Alison as comfortable as possible. We were pleased with the contented and cheerful response of our visitors. The beds, linen and all were more than comfortable and perfect. The atmosphere of La Casa and the ‘sitting and sipping’ on the terrace seemed highly acceptable to all. The following message was written to Niekie when the couple from Venice, taking part in the Eroica cyclist race in and around Radda, stayed in the Piccolo Apartment; “Ciao Nieke. Volevo ringraziarti perché hai reso il nostro soggiorno ad Adine e la nostra Eroica veramente indimenticabili. Sei un uomo davvero in gamba e spero di rivederti. Un abbraccio, Maria Giovanna. This pleased us.

We set aside some days to do the maintenance household tasks, especially sanding and varnishing the windows and shutters. On such days we stayed home all day and enjoyed a home cooked meal on the terrace in the evenings with a well-earned glass of wine in hand. On other days we went on outings in the Chianti countryside along the narrow roads, inevitably ending up enjoying a cappuccino and a gelato in a one of the many coffee shops. We visit the picturesque and stony villages of the Lega del Chianti, the Chianti League. Christine adds the quality of being romantic! Greve with its beautiful piazza and lovely negotzi around the square drew us in and out of buying a few articles that would land up ‘on the mantelpiece’ back home to remind us of our stay in Chianti. Niekie called them kaggelkakkies, but Christine and I enjoyed these moments of purchase. Lecchi is close to Adine and we go some mornings for the cappuccino and to have a ‘look’ at the tall Italian, Paulo. Lecchi besides being the heart of the iGamba cycling belongs in part to Paulo’s family. At Lecchi we buy the odd item, bread (preferably with salt), from his mother, the friendly lady behind the till in the alimentari with large prizes. We had wonderful meals at Malborghetto, the celebrated restaurant in Lecchi, championed by the energetic Simone, its famous chef. We did most of our shopping in Radda and voted this Chianti town as was our top village. We enjoyed the company of the pleasant inhabitants of the town, such as Gannaio, our friend with few teeth and kind heart, who invited us regularly for a coffee on our shopping sprees. At the Coop in Radda, we found good wines and paid reasonable prices. Our palates had settled after the inevitable journey of wine tasting in Chianti, such as in Panzano on the day of the Unione Viticoltori, tasting with little spitting, the wine of 22 wine producers. We spent time in medieval Castellina, with the protective ancient walls and tower, buying beautiful linen tablecloths from Firenze and a yellow blouse for Christine with Niekie’s composed approval as he sensed our complete happiness with these purchases. An opportune visit to the Archaeological Museum of the Sienese Chianti in Castellina gave us an ancient view of past cultures showing exhibits and excavations of Etruscan finds of the 7th Century B.C. until the start of our era when Etruria became Romanised. The Etruscans knew sophisticated living and passed on their ways to the barbaric Romans of the time. Found among grave goods, a bronze grater was on display in the museum, showing the custom of grating cheese into wine to produce kykeon, a drink of energetic powers especially for warriors. Homer liked it.

Historically the republics of Siena and Firenze competed for supremacy in the Chianti area. The story of establishing the border closer to Siena securing the largest section of the region for Firenze, lies in the cunning of the Florentines to starve a black cockerel so that it cried earlier in the night, and then, still within the agreement that the race to set the boundary between the two cities would start with the first cockerel crow, the Florentine rider set off ahead of his Sienese rival, and secured the boundary near Castellina. Chianti Classico wines today carry the emblem of the black cockerel, maybe holding forth that the sting in the tale may vapourise as the wine is poured. We enjoyed Siena with its large piazza del Campo, accommodating the famous horse race, the Palio, held twice a year. Subtly the religious overtones and dedications of this race give it a status that dithers in sacredness, even for the thousands of tourists that watch it each year. I feel for the horses! It is a harsh race. Contrade, city wards, compete with consecrated horse and rider and forse the celebrated winners enjoy the ‘love’ of saints thereafter. Talk about saints and dedication, we watched the World Cup rugby with South Africa playing Italy in a bar overlooking the Piazza del Campo. The beer was good, and the Italians were amazed that they lost the game.
The city of San Gimignano, centers around the Piazza della Cisterna, lined with beautiful medieval houses. Power and wealth are seated in the age old souls of Italian peers. The height and majesty of the many stone towers in San Gimignano, equate the powerful influence of generations of families through the years. On two occasions we revelled in performances of the Siena school of Music hosted by the kind patrons of Castello di Albola. We dressed up … and were graciously received as ‘cousins’ from Africa by Martin Saywell and his wife Marie Claude. They recently restored the Chiesa di San Salvatore, adjoining the Castello, where the musicians performed. We listened to the flauto, violoncello, pianoforte and chitarra instrumental music of amongst others, Bach, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy and of course Beethoven (1770 – 1827). We met the director of the Siena School of Music, the amazingly talented Luciano Tristaino. Unfortunately in all this beauty of music, he did share his repugnance in how crime was rife in South Africa and how his view of our country was influenced by this on a recent visit

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A highlight of our stay was a visit to Firenze, although late in the tourist season there were still too many people. Hundreds of people queued for hours in long line ups at major iconic sights; the main one of course being the Duomo cathedral and bell tower, engineered by Brunelleschi. We lit candles in its magnificent interior sanctuary for everyone back home, especially our Wolfie dog. We visited the Galleria dell’Accadermia to marvel at Michelangelo’s David. I took a photograph of Niekie in the same spot in front of the sculpture where he and Marina stood in 1987. At the time she was six years old and looking up at David she asked Niekie: “If David was this tall how tall was Goliath?”. We had a few days ‘free’ before our last visitors, Klaus, Dorle and their grandson Jakob, arrived from Berlin, and we decide to visit Pepe and Niki Bosini’s in Umbria on their farm near Todi, 3 km from Casemasce. Our families have known each other for decades and a visit to spend more time with them was imminent. On the way to Casemasce, we stop over in Assisi nested high up on Monte Subasio. I have always wanted to visit Assisi since reading the story, The Small Miracle written by Paul Gallico of the young boy, Pepino, an orphan, and his donkey, Violetta, who he believed would be healed by St Francis if he could take the ailing donkey into the church to the crypt of the Saint. When consent is denied by lesser clergy he visits Roma and gets permission from the Pope himself to take Violetta into the Basilica of San Pietro, to the crypt of St Francis and so completes his pilgrimage of faith. St Francis, a man among saints! We spent time in Todi, a worthwhile visit, especially the small Church of the Nunziatina in the piazza. Finding the inevitable Acheulian and middle stone age flakes on the farm, and hoping for a fresh listener, I showed these to Pepe, explaining eagerly that the age of these flakes were probably 200 000 years old and maybe as ‘recent’ as 100 000 years ago. Pepe with the wisdom of his eighty years weighting heavily, waited a while and then said dryly, “At least there are some things around here that are older than me”. We return ‘home’ to enjoy the last few days with the Klaus, Dorle and Jakob and spend our time together with much fun, laughter, eating and drinking, a pattern that we developed well over the weeks in Casa della Alison. Part of our joy was that Jakob was well again after suffering leukaemia for 14 years of his young life. He was an example of being positive, full of vitality, self-assured and astute. We are often conditioned to think that when ‘on holiday’ one must have a story to tell. Our story is not easy to tell as it lies in the collective inner level of our psyche. We experienced breing happy! So bear with us in trying to recall detail. We were afloat on the air of Chianti, and trailing our experience of this nature was a package of vast gratitude and appreciation to Alison and Barry for opening their beautiful la Casa Alison to us and giving us this unique opportunity to ‘live’ a life in Chianti.

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