There are mad crushes that end as soon as the night is over and there is Italy. I love Italy as I do the ocean, or reading. I love Italy as I love music. And the Italy I love is certainly Rome and Naples and Venice, but what wove Italy into my bloodstream is Umbria and Tuscany. It is the the wind across the wild herbs that lie hidden in the grass, the smell of the pancetta hanging from hooks at the butcher, the light that finds its way through impossibly narrow stone paved streets and the gentle hills to walk. It is the gracious hospitality, the elegance of each day and a ready humor that embraces my terrible Italian and accepts gesticulation as a neccessary. It is an unwavering tradition of passion in the kitchen, coffee to solve all problems in less than 2 minutes, and olive oil that is life changing.
I find the best places to stay for all this can be the simplest. Hidden behind a long stone wall in a village just outside the bustle of Cortona is a lovely private villa where I learned how to make my first braised chicken with vinegar. and behind the villa, a well kept secret of ancient farmhouses for sleeping and dreaming and doing your own cooking.
In case you get there, and need a recipe, you could always ask Signora Scarpaccini for hers, which is far and beyond, the best, or to practice, here goes:
Season a 3 pound chicken that you have cut into at least 6 pieces with sea salt and a tiny grind of black pepper. Be sure you get all sides. Heat up a heavy frying pan with olive oil good enough to make your heart sing. Sear off the chicken to a nearly chestnut brown. Remove and pour off nearly all the fat. Add another drizzle of olive oil. Add 1 whole clove of garlic and let it go until golden brown. Get the chicken back in the pan. Cut 3 San Marzano canned tomatoes in half and remove the seeds. Squish them with your hand and add to the pot. Let all this simmer, stirring with loads of attention, until the tomato has lost nearly all of its liquid. Pour in 1 cup of best quality red wine vinegar. Let it simmer gently until it is only a glaze. Add 1 cup of chicken stock and again, at a simmer, let this reduce by a third. Remove the chicken, and off the heat, whisk in a few tablespoons of butter.
For an absolutely simple Tuscan hide-away, have a look at toscanaumbrialowcost.com