By Linda Funay McCarley
As part our recent trip to Italy, we spent four wonderful days in the city of Arezzo. Much as we love Florence and Siena’s beauty, we were looking for a relaxing break from Tuscany’s over-touristed cities. Well, we found it.
Only an hour by car or train from Florence and Siena, we discovered that Arezzo makes a fabulous base from which to explore Tuscany and Umbria. This elegant yet unassuming city offers rich cultural and historic gems, beautiful art and architecture, and a friendly local feel. A surprising number of artists, poets, and architects have made their mark on Arezzo since its inception as an Etruscan settlement in the ninth century BC.
Arezzo’s Medici Fortress, Roman Amphitheater, and Piazza Grande invite you to stay awhile to revel in its journey through the passing centuries. As we strolled its cobbled lanes and admired its medieval and Renaissance churches and pastel-hued buildings, we could feel the influence of Florence. Yet, we were able to enjoy Arezzo’s treasures at a more relaxed pace without the throngs of tourists and long lines of the more popular Tuscan cities.
There is a lively vibe in the restaurants, caffes, and bars of Arezzo. Locals and visitors can dine al fresco after trekking to the town’s summit for panoramic views from the Medici Fortress. Enjoy an aperitivo after browsing Arezzo’s famous antique market (first Sunday of every month), and the city’s many boutiques and artisan shops dotting the Corso Italia, the main pedestrian lane.
DOWN ON THE FARM
During our four-night stay in a lovely apartment in Arezzo’s historic center, our family decided that we wanted to learn more about the fabulous local sheep cheeses that we had been sampling. We were intrigued to see how they are made. We discovered a small family-run sheep farm just a few miles from the city, and we settled on a plan for our last day in Arezzo.
Our early-morning adventure began with a drive out of the historic gates and into the countryside of eastern Tuscany, passing tiny towns and farms just touching the edge of the Chianti region. Following the owner’s clear directions, we soon spotted groups of the black-and-white sheep enjoying their breakfast out on the farm’s pasture.
As soon as we turned into the long driveway of Podere Casa al Bosco, I craned my neck out of the van window hoping to get a glimpse of one of the adorable little lambs I had seen on their website. (We were all there to learn about cheese, but my secret wish was to hold a lamb.). Hmm. No babies.
My disappointment quickly evaporated as we walked up to the farmhouse and the family’s two “sort of” sheep dogs (meant to guard the sheep against wolves, but who apparently prefer lazing around and charming the guests) enthusiastically greeted us. Our wonderful host, Francesco, then invited us inside.
Francesco’s mom Ada and her sister run this small farm of 50 Massese sheep and various other farm animals. It was obvious as we stepped into the clean and organized demonstration room that they run it like a well-oiled machine.
Our tour began with Francesco sharing the back story of the farm and its cheesemaking operation. We were intrigued by the family history. Francesco’s grandfather, a shepherd since age six, and his grandmother, a cheesemaker, started the farm together in the 1970s when the 47-hectare property, a former brickmaking facility, came up for sale. His grandparents kept the old brick kiln, renovated it, and now use it as an aging house to produce a unique cheese that is similar to cave cheese.
The farm produces about 10,000 kilos of cheese per year, all by hand. They treated us to demonstrations and tastings of their fresh, semi-aged, aged, and kiln-produced pecorino and fresh ricotta. They add no preservatives, nor do they pasteurize these cheeses. Salt is the only preservative. This is the Real Deal.
My favorite was the cheese crafted in the way Francesco’s great-grandmother made it back in the day. Nestling the curds in a “placemat” made from a local reed called Giunco, they then wrap it up like a big candy, ends twisted. After seven-to-ten days, they remove the wrapping to reveal a football-shaped cheese complete with rind. This cheese is slight nutty with a rich and distinct flavor like no other cheese I’ve ever tasted. Luckily, all the cheeses we tasted were available for purchase, and Giunco came home with me.
Ada expertly demonstrated each step of the cheesemaking process while Francesco described it all in English.
Since we were the only guests on that particular day, we had our own private tasting of all the types of cheese we had witnessed Ada make. They set a simple table and laid out individual plates for each of us with a selection of the cheeses accompanied by wine and served with the family’s own pear jam. They served the fresh ricotta warm with a light and fluffy crepe drizzled with honey.
It was fascinating to watch and learn the delicate process then getting to savor the delectable cheeses and discerning the flavor differences between the various types and ages as Francesco described them. Observing the effort and time it takes to make each round of cheese by hand really gave me an appreciation of small-production farms.
After our tasting, the special bonus was a trek to the barn to visit the wonderful sheep responsible for all this lovely cheese. We held a fuzzy little month-old lamb (My wish was granted!), fed the horses, then scattered away from the cheeky, honking geese chasing after us.
The final thrill was watching the entire herd of woolly sheep meander back out to pasture for their afternoon lawn-mowing session, the bells around their necks clanging to announce their presence and keep them safe.
Feeling all warm and fuzzy after our farm visit, we wanted to completely switch gears and get our inner divas on for our next stop of the day. We brought a change of clothes and freshened up since our shopping stop was directly on the route back to Arezzo.
Not everyone knows about this place, even some of the locals, so we felt like we were in on a big secret when our friend Antonio from Arezzo (and employee of the company) filled us in about this very special shopping experience—a visit to the Space PRADA Outlet in Montevarchi. I’m not normally one for designer purses, but Prada? At heavily discounted prices? Definitely worth tacking on to our morning visit at the farm, since we practically had to drive right by it on our return to Arezzo.
If you’re going to splurge while on vacation, this is the place. A huge outlet store, the Space PRADA Outlet is just off the main road to Arezzo, but you can easily miss it if you don’t know it is there. Neatly organized by menswear, ladies’ wear, and accessories sections, this store has enough gorgeous merchandise to keep you busy more than a couple of hours.
To save you from getting overwhelmed by the abundant selections, you take a ticket number on arrival. One of the friendly staff puts your favorite items aside under that number until you are ready to check out. Beautiful purses in all sizes and colors, shoes, clothing, and accessories begged us to take them home. We all (even my non-designer-wearing husband) walked out of there feeling very proud of our bargains. Well, relative bargains.
We wrapped up our Farm and Fashion Day with a fantastic cooking session hosted by our charming apartment host, Stefano.
Armed with all the ingredients we needed to make homemade fettuccini and his famous meat sauce, Stefano ceremoniously handed each of us a glass of red wine as we walked through his ancient front door. A roaring fire and vibey music complemented his warm welcome.
Stefano set us all to work to prepare an amazing meal. He assigned each of us a task, and his magic charm inspired everyone to want to do his/her best. The passion he showed for his cooking was palpable and contagious, and everything from chopping the vegetables to stirring the sauce to rolling the pasta dough felt special. Tired from the full day, we were somehow reenergized as we stirred, simmered, sipped, and tasted as the tantalizing aromas of ‘our’ sauce soon permeated the entire apartment.
We all sat down to savor the fruits of our labor, more wine flowing and music playing, talking well into the night about our fabulous day, learning more about Arezzo from Stefano, and making plans for our return trip.