Sunday, 16 February 2014

Booze Tourism Tuscany: Grappas Delight

Another holiday, another booze tourism adventure. That’s what happens when you don’t have any kids – making 3 in 2013 (holidays, not kids – maybe we’ll make 3 kids next year… but preferably one to begin with), with [at the time of writing] one still on the horizon - Christmas in Canada, with the chance to pick up some obscure bourbon and Canadian whiskies…I’ve even heard Canadians make pomace brandy, you know.

 Mrs Cake’s equivalent of my Distilgrimage

This time it was Tuscany, in the heart of Italy, and you know what that means, don’t you? Grappa, Italian beer and to a lesser extent (for me at least) wine. Yes, they make a lot of wine in Tuscany (you might have heard of the Chianti region which is right in the middle of it there), so the general idea behind the holiday was much relaxation, much tootling around in a rental car (which may not necessarily go hand in hand with the relaxation thing) and much consumption of sumptuous foods and rich alcohols.

I would be doing the driving, so in theory that would make this Mrs Cake’s equivalent of my Distilgrimage. That was so awesome that I was delighted to be able to return the favour that Mrs Cake did by driving me round most of the distilleries of Islay while I drank enough samples for both of us – and not just because my pre-trip research didn’t turn up any grappa distilleries in the region. I’ll just chauffeur the missus around then so that she can consume as much wine as possible. But would there be any grappa to be had? That was my concern (outside of generally having a great time and relaxing with Mrs Cake). Well… we’ll see.

It’s going to be too late to get to the duck fest…

No duty free purchases to take with me this time; I knew interesting alcohol would likely be available in abundance, so I set my sights on an early supermarket purchase of some grappa that I could dip into throughout the week, and hopefully finish before returning home – ideally leaving space for two special grappas to come home with me.

We collected the hire car from Pisa airport – a tiny and clunky Nissan Micra with far more scratches on it than were marked on the damage sheet (we’d been warned of the notoriety of Pisa Airport’s car hire merchants, so we had the guy mark on all the extra scratches), and a fuel tank that was two notches below full… though I didn’t notice that until we had to fill up the first time; oh, so those bars do go all the way to the top… ROBBING BASTARDS!

We plugged in the satnav, and away we went, straight down the highway towards Florence, before turning off towards Arezzo and arriving at our apartment, halfway up a mountain an hour and a half later.

Though our host couldn’t be with us for another couple of hours, we elected to hang out by the pool, eating the Aldi crisps we’d brought from home.

A couple of hours and a brief orientation later, we were on our way back down the winding mountain road, looking to head to the Coop supermarket in the nearby town of San Giovani Valdarno. The plan was to collect a few essentials before heading to the slightly further town of Arezzo for what was being billed as a Duckfest - so lots of duck to eat. We were starving by this point and prone to irrational bursts of panic or stress as our stomachs digested themselves, so the possibility of a duck fest went right up my flagpole.

San Giovani Valdarno is only a small town so surely, we thought, it couldn’t be difficult to locate a medium sized supermarket. WRONG. We drove up and down, round and round, trying to get used to the traffic system and the fact that you’re not expected to stop for pedestrians at crossings in Italy, all the while watching the light fade and thinking, ‘it’s going to be too late to get to that duck fest… it might be too late to pick up groceries at this rate…’

We made it in the end, finding what turned out to be a medium sized supermarket that would have been a food blogger’s delight… fantastic deli counter, but you don’t want to hear about that.

No, what about the booze? Well, Mrs Cake went in search of the cheapest wine she could find while I went to check out the beers. Most of the beer was gone but I got a couple of reasonably priced three packs – Moretti and Poretti…

When I found Mrs Cake again she’d found wines for a euro fifty and three euros. I’d struggled to find the spirits aisle, but much to my relief (and after being briefly overwhelmed by the choice of bottled water) there it was, and while it was small, there was a plethora of different varieties of grappa.

The problem now was how to make my choice. I quickly engaged the logic circuits and decided to choose something that was 50cl, rather than 70 (to better facilitate finishing it during the holiday), and that was also at least 40% ABV (because it’s just better, and I can tell the difference).

...and in the glass... at night
Deta Ars Essentiae in the bottle...

It still wasn’t easy with all that affordable spirit (prices ranged from 7-35 euros), but in the end, this is what I went for; Deta Ars Essentiae Riserva di Chianti Classico. Clearly it has been aged (probably from around 18 months to 2 years) and it comes in a fancy bottle with a Grolsch style cap. No doubt these factors played a subconscious part in my decision.

 Sixty euros later, we returned to the car to programme the satnav, and found that the duck fest was around an hour and a half away. As that wasn’t what we’d been led to believe by our host we wondered whether the satnav was mistaken and decided to head back to the apartment, drop off our goodies and check the map we’d left there. The sun was sinking fast, and when we found out the satnav was correct, the experience of the roads we’d driven so far convinced us an hour and a half more without food might be a bit much for us to handle on our first day. It was a shame because food festivals were the kind of thing we would have liked this holiday to be all about. Nevertheless, our host had said there were these kind of festivals all the time, so we decided we’d see about trying another one later in the week.

We headed to the much nearer town of Loro Ciuffena to search for a restaurant. The one we found was fairly good, but there was to be no booze for me just yet – navigating dark mountainous roads (on the wrong side), in a left hand drive car, struggling to flick between the full beam and dipped headlights and having to be ready to shift down to second or even first at a moment’s notice was proving far too taxing to risk driving back with even a single beer in me. The only help was that the satnav gave me a basic idea of where the road was going, and if the severity of a turn or gradient wasn’t entirely accurately represented, it at least gave some advance warning. Making it back to the apartment would be cause for celebration… and something to look forward to.

Achievement unlocked: Clutch control.


We did make it - it would be hard for me to be typing this if we hadn’t – and I dipped straight into those beers that I’d popped in the fridge a couple of hours before. They were nice and cold because I’d thought to check the thermostat earlier, and knocked it down (or up) a notch (whichever makes it colder). It’s worth bearing this in mind for future holidays – properties will often adjust their fridges while unoccupied, presumably to economise on electricity bills, so get on it early and you too could have proper cold beers when you return from that first excursion.

 I was able to procure four types of bottled beer over the week, all of which were strong and most of which were terrific. I’m a fan of Italian beer, but sadly I can't remember any specific details for you, so you'll have to make do with pictures. Soz.

Days In

On the first day we briefly discussed what we would do on each day of the holiday, and it was quickly decided that there would be two days reserved for sitting around the pool and in the apartment’s designated garden. The first, we decided, would be Sunday, our first full day.

The weather, of course was beautiful, but what would be a sensible time to open that first beer? 12.30.

Stop. Grappa Time.

Later also, I was able to open the grappa and sample its delights for the first time. I struggled a little getting the cellophane off the cap, and  I think in the end Mrs Cake may have finished that particular job off for me, but all that just served to make the pomace spirit all the sweeter.

Information on this brand hasn’t been too easy to find, but I can confirm the Deta Ars Essentiae Grappa Riserva di Chianti Classico is from the Chianti region, which was just over the next mountain from where we stayed. Also, it is made from the Sangiovese variety of grape, from which the vast majority of Chianti wines are made – as we were to learn later.

At 11 euros it wasn’t the cheapest, but in comparison to the first bottle of grappa I ever bought – Domenis Storica (50% ABV, 32 euros), it was positively budget. Because of that, I kept my expectations low. Deta was merely conceived of as something to drink with gay abandon during the holiday, so it didn’t have to be amazing. It was the stuff I’d be selecting for taking home that was intended to be special.

Nevertheless, those late evenings relaxing after a long day’s driving and the two days I was able to dedicate a little more time to it convinced me that this was actually a grappa of quality. I’m clearly no expert as yet, but I have decided to move this straight into 2nd place (behind the unaged Storica) on the grappa hierarchy, and that is actually ahead of the aged Domenis Blanc e Neri, which you may remember me parting with 48 hard-earned pounds for. That had a slightly bitter finish, despite a complexity on the palate. There was no bitterness with the Deta, so it turns out to be quite a bargain.

Boozy Chess Update

If you’ll allow me to digress for just a moment, let’s just get into the game of chess that we had on our last full day at the apartment. We didn’t follow any specific drinking rules, but we were drinking. Mrs Cake was on the red wine and I was trying to polish off a number of strong beers and just over a quarter of a bottle of the grappa.

It was a good game that had two turning points. First, I lost concentration enough to plan ahead and then act on my future plan before the situation was in place. Mrs Cake threatened one of my important pieces, and instead of moving it I decided to back it up – which should be fine, except I backed up a move that hadn’t happened yet, allowing Mrs Cake to take the piece I was trying to protect.

That seriously affected my chances of winning, but I went on, hoping I could forge out a clever victory. What won it in the end though was when Mrs Cake inexplicably moved the one piece that was preventing me launching an attack on her king.

Unbelieving, I looked at it and said, “why would you do that?” suspecting I might be about to fall into a trap, as I so often do but no, Mrs Cake had just gifted the match to me. I moved my castle up next to her king and that was it. A lucky victory.

I’ll leave it there for part one. Join me next week for part 2, when we’ll be visiting Siena and the Chianti region and having all kinds of exciting adventures. See you then.

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