Thursday, October 16, 2008

Knitting Retreat in Montisi

Dateline: Montisi, Tuscany, Italy, 10/4/08 – 10/11/08

Y2Knit is a bicoastal company run by two sisters, Jill and Susan Wolcott. Jill lives in San Francisco and is a designer; Susan lives in Maryland and runs a yarn store. Together they sell patterns and yarn, teach classes, and also organize retreats for knitters. This year they had a series of retreats in Montisi, a rural town of about 400 people in Tuscany, dating from medieval times. I attended the second week, along with 9 other knitters. We stayed in Villa Maddalena, a big old house on the main street of the town.

In addition to the knitting workshops, which I’ll cover in a future post, Susan and Jill filled the week with interesting activities without venturing far from Montisi. The theme of the week seemed to be living your passion. All of us are passionate knitters, and thanks to Jill and Susan’s local contacts in Montisi, we were able to meet and interact with several people who are just as passionate about their work.

Elizabeth Cochrane is a British artist who has lived in Montisi for several years and has become a valuable member of the community. She paints the gorgeous Tuscan landscapes, and specializes in painting clouds. Liz also devotes time to helping tourists enjoy Montisi. She served as translator for several of our activities, and also welcomed us into her home and studio. In the picture, Liz has her back to the camera as she translates for Marco during our tour of La Grancia, a former estate which is now used for winemaking and renting apartments to visitors.

For a small town, Montisi has an abundance of excellent food. Tina Hilton, an editor and yarn rep, did most of the cooking for us, and all of the food was wonderful. Three meals especially stood out. One dinner was cooked for us at the villa by Alessandro, a local chef. It included picci, a Tuscan pasta which is like a thicker version of spaghetti. I bought a package to bring home, it cooks for 22 minutes, which is unusually long. Montisi also has two wonderful restaurants that serve locally produced food. Alberto owns La Romita, a hotel and small restaurant that is part of the “slow food” movement. He cooked and unobtrusively served us a wonderful dinner of several courses; a highlight was the chestnut pasta.

Alberto also owns a frantoio, or olive press, which is used to make olive oil from the local crop. His passion really became apparent when he talked to us about olive oil, with Liz as his translator. After explaining how the oil is made, Alberto gave us a tasting of two oils, one ordinary extra virgin from the supermarket, and the other last year’s locally produced oil. He showed us that the supermarket oil had a somewhat rancid smell and taste, while the local oil smelled like freshly cut grass, and was a natural green color. The day we left Montisi was the first day of this year’s olive harvest, and unfortunately none of last year’s oil was left to be sold, so we were not able to buy any. Montisi produces only enough oil to be used locally and does not export it. When I get home to Sigona, my favorite produce store, which sells a variety of Italian olive oils, I’ll look for some Tuscan oil that smells like fresh grass.

On the other end of town from La Romita is Da Roberto, a beautiful restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining. Roberto served us a stupendous lunch, starting with panzanella (Tuscan bread salad) and ending with tiramisu. Roberto does not believe in using vinegar in his salads; he says it’s a “trick” that masks the natural taste of the food. He also doesn’t use alcohol, another “trick”, in his tiramisu. I don’t usually like tiramisu, but this was wonderful, full of chocolate, espresso, and cream.

The next day Roberto, who speaks fluent English, put on a wine tasting for us in his garden. We tasted a white, a rose, and two reds, all produced by small local vineyards. Roberto spoke to us for two hours about the wines, food, and other fascinating topics.

We took several walks in and around Montisi. The longest walk was a 6-kilometer round trip, much of it uphill, to the nearby town of Castelmuzio. Both Montisi and Castelmuzio are hill towns, so of course we had to walk downhill from Montisi and then uphill to Castelmuzio, then vice versa on the way back. I lagged behind with women 10 years older than I am, but at least I was able to complete the walk. While in Castelmuzio we visited the harpsichord studio of Bruce Kennedy, who showed us a beautiful, newly built harpsichord and played a little Bach. We then walked through some of the steep, narrow streets of the town, which really feels like a castle, and visited the local supermarket (only a little larger than our typical convenience store) before starting the walk back to Montisi.

We also enjoyed meeting a genuine celebrity, although I have to admit I had never heard of her before, not being a Harry Potter fan. Miriam Margolyes is a British actress who played Professor Sprout in Harry Potter, among other roles, and some of our group recognized her around town. She came to visit us at the villa and talked to us about her home in Montisi and the new movie she’s about to shoot with Tom Conti and Daryl Hannah. Miriam is on the left in this picture.


Vivian said...

This sounds like the tour of the dream! I can't wait for my retirement.

alce said...

Oh, Fae, how wonderful! I look forward to hearing more about your trip.

Anonymous said...

Fae, thank you for sharing, I look forward to more of your posts. I think I'll cook my pici tomorrow night, with some good olive oil of course! I love the pictures, I can't wait to see the rest!

Melody said...

Fae - This sounds like it was a wonderful trip for you. It is great that you are getting to do all of this traveling, with people with shared interests.

Jill Wolcott said...

Wonderful recap Fae! I carried home 4 cans of the new batch of oil!

I am so thrilled that it seemed that living your passion was the theme. It was, but only because Susan and I are trying to do that, and seemingly everyone in Montisi is doing that, and not because we intentionally were trying to show it. So aren't you clever for figuring it out! Liz Cochrane is to be thanked not only for having a wonderful passion, and sharing how she was able to find a way to pursue it, but for opening doors to others' passion that the language barrier would have prevented us from knowing. My only regret was that we never got to talk to Giovanna, Alberto's wife who is also the chef at La Romita. I assume she is passionate about cooking (although modest) and it certainly shows in her dishes!

Thanks for the photo of the harpsichord. That was an awesome experience (and I don't like classical music) to see what his passion has led him to create! He let us come back the following week (actually we just dropped in on him) and everyone was equally taken with the experience. They were at work on the 4th piece of 2008 which had been pieces the week Fae was with us.