We are currently working on 2 upcoming titles that have seemed to have crossed paths this month. Jen, in her upcoming Well Seasoned in Tuscany, describes Montepulciano's Bravio delle Botte. Ben, recently posted a photo on his Etna Wine School Instagram page of the Palio delle Botti di Eustachio. Instead of horses, contradas compete with usually a few representatives rolling wine barrels. Who needs Crossfit?
Both races are in August and on Sicily the race is held in Riposto named in honor of Eustachio Laviefuille, former Viceroy of Sicily who in 1752 constructed a compound in the Port of Riposto to defend his vineyards on Mount Etna from raiding pirates. We are working diligently on Ben's book, The New Wines of Mount Etna, an Insider's Guide to the History and Rebirth of a Wine Region and can't wait for you to read it.
The same goes for the follow up to At Least You're in Tuscany. The following is an excerpt to Well Seasoned in Tuscany by Jennifer Criswell about her favorite event of the year.
The heat of August radiated off the cobblestones even in the early evening as I made my way up the corso. Fragrant barbecue smoke from the contrada grills spiced the air with the promise of roasting pork shanks and sausages, causing me to pick up the pace: it was Bravio week, my favorite week of the year. Siena may have its famous horse race, the Palio, but Montepulciano’s Bravio delle Botte garners just as much enthusiasm... on a slightly smaller scale.
My Contrada Gracciano is right past Franca’s fruit and vegetable shop. Franca waved to me from inside the beads of her doorway. She had become a friend in recent years. More than a source of locally grown fruits and vegetables, Franca shared my love of cooking with fresh ingredients and she happily went out of her way to order me hard to find items like sweet potatoes, or even limes when I needed a margarita fix. She often offered up great recipe suggestions when I eyed some unfamiliar variety of greens or tubers. I repaid her extra kindnesses in the only way I knew how...with baked goods. She was particularly fond of my banana bread.
“Ciao Franca,” I called as I passed tantalizing displays of dark red cherries and juicy apricots lounging seductively outside the shop.
I hurried past the entrance of my contrada, trying to avoid making eye contact with the Gracciano elders. Despite proudly wearing our distinctive black and Green colors on my scarf complete with lion motif, tonight I was dining at Talosa at the top of the town.
We have eight contrada districts in Montepulciano. Historically the districts of the town had a military role during the warring between Siena and Florence in the 15th Century with Montepulciano being coveted for its bustling economy and strategic positioning between the Orcia and Chiana rivers.
The contrade were also historically responsible for protecting and maintaining their section of the town’s walls, defense of its gates and even organization of the fire brigade. The pride one has for its contrada is something akin to the fervor that people feel for their hometown sports team, only deeper. It’s the passion of a close-knit community that comes together to celebrate and pay homage to the history and traditions of the town. And there is of course the requisite friendly rivalry between the various districts. History oozes from the pores of Montepulciano everyday, but during this time of year it is a pulsating and compelling entity that is felt not only by the inhabitants but by everyone who passes through its medieval gates.
The tradition of the Bravio is one that has been around since the 14th Century. The contrada season opens with the parade on the first of May and continues through the race on the last Sunday of August with closing ceremonies in September.
Like in Siena, the Bravio in Montepulciano was originally a horse race with origins dating back to 1373. Surely it must have been spectacular to witness decorated horses and riders charging up the corso, but if you have had the pleasure of walking the steep, narrow, and sometimes treacherous streets of this town, you will understand why, for issues of public safety and to avoid the townsfolk being crushed beneath horse hooves, the race was re-imagined into the barrel race of today, the Bravio delle Botte. A prosaic barrel race on its face, in reality it’s an extreme test of skill and stamina. Each contrada has two spingitori (basically two really fit guys) who push (spingono) 200 pound wine barrels from the bottom of Montepulciano over 1800 meters to the Cathedral in Piazza Grande at the top of the town. To the winning contrada goes the “bravio” which is a cloth panel dedicated to the town’s patron saint, San Giovanni Decollato. Of course, there are also money and bragging rights at a stake. But as fun as the actual race is, the festivities leading up to it are what everyone remembers.
By the time I reached Piazza Grande, I was breathing hard and decidedly sudata. That’s Italian for sweaty...but to my ear sounds a tad more delicate. I thought of the guys who would be pushing those heavy, unwieldy barrels up the hill at breakneck speed in just a few days. Sudatissimi. Super sweaty!
I had to walk the periphery of the piazza because huge bleachers had been set up in the middle in preparation for festivities later that night. The Thursday night before race day is the Corteo dei Cere. Much like the May parade, there are flag throwers, drummers, and the royal court of each contrada in medieval dress, but this time, as the processional winds its way through the town’s districts, it is by candlelight. It’s quite beautiful because all the lights are turned off during the parade and for a moment you are transported back in time. Then inevitably a young drummer or flag thrower tugs at his velvet tunic because he is dying in the heat, or one of the bystanders steps on a flaming candle, and you are brought back to reality.
Talosa is one of the town’s oldest contradas with roots back to the 11th Century. The terrace of the Palazzo Ricci is home to its dinners during Bravio week. I entered the courtyard of the Palazzo where Talosa’s red and yellow flag is flying and scanned for my British friends Gill and Adrian. Before I spotted them, I saw their daughter Tamara waiting tables, her long blond hair skimmed back in a tight ponytail, a Talosa scarf neatly tied around her neck as she wended her way through long picnic tables of hungry diners jammed elbow to elbow. Tamara somehow managed to make the Talosa colors look good. Esthetically Talosa is my least favorite color scheme, as every time I see the flag throwers in their bright yellow and red tunics and tights, I am reminded of Ronald McDonald. It’s the only contrada that looks as if it went cheap and cheerful and got a really good deal on closeout yellow fabric that no one else wanted.
Colors aside, the dinners at Talosa were good. The line was long and the smell heavenly as the grill masters fired up Florentine steaks and pork loin. It was also one of the few contradas that served your meal with real plates and glasses.
I was a little late since coming straight from work, so I’d texted Gill to order for me. I’d barely said hello and slung my leg over the table’s bench when heaping plates of food arrived. Mine was pork loin with roasted apples. Gill filled my glass with wine as we caught up on our lives.
“We started drinking without you,” Gill said pointing to a bottle of Vino Nobile. “They didn’t have Poliziano. Hope this is okay.”
“I can drink Poliziano any time. I inspected the Boscarelli label. One of my top five favorite cantinas. I sipped happily and shared stories about my day.
“But what about you guys? How are the guests this year?” I asked Adrian. Adrian and Gill had bought a gorgeous piece of land from two brothers who owned a sheep farm, and the sheep still roamed the fields, slowly grazing from one end to another, keeping them nicely trimmed. Gill always got upset when the sheep had their babies in the spring and the lambs were taken away. “I just tell myself they are going on vacation,” she’d told me. “Otherwise it’s just too horrible.” That being said I’d spent Easter with them last year and we’d dined on a leg of lamb that one of the farmers had given them. Mint jelly, anyone?
The property boasted over a hundred ancient olive trees badly in need of pruning, this I knew intimately because I’d helped harvest them two years running. They had renovated a decrepit farmhouse and turned it into a beautiful villa for guests as well as a smaller apartment for them and their three girls. Adrian had done most of the work himself. He handled the hospitality and Gill did the cleaning changeover and tried to avoid interaction with their guests.
“The Americans are the worst as always,” Adrian teased. “They leave the lights on and the a/c going even when they aren’t at home.”
Gill and I exchanged glances and smiled as we settled in to listen to the latest edition of “nightmare guests.” Adrian didn’t disappoint. He munched steadily on grilled sausages all the while regaling us with stories of broken toilet seats, duvets stained with red wine, bottles floating in the pool, and strip poker shenanigans on the patio.
Tamara came over, bringing us some steaming baskets of extra fries. Perks of having your daughter work at the contrada. “Tell her about when Dominique found the handcuffs on the gazebo.”
We all laughed, as the Belgian sex-game couple had been the winning story from last year.
“I am sure they were just using them to hang their towels, dear.” Gill said.
“Yes, because I always bring my handcuffs on vacation to Tuscany in case there aren’t enough clothes pegs,” Adrian snorted.
The evening passed too quickly and as Adrian and Gill headed to the square to wait for the festivities, I made my way down the hill in time to watch the parade from my contrada.
Fortune smiled on Gracciano as Sunday’s Bravio resulted in a win for our contrada. When the starter gun went off and the sirens signaled the start of the race, I’d cheered loudly for Piero, one of our spingitore as the barrels came storming up the corso. Piero worked at Poliziano and he trained all year long for the race. His thighs looked like tree trunks from running up the steep hills and he was always recognizable from his blond ponytail flapping behind him. The race itself was over in about 7 minutes, the celebrating, however, went on much longer. And this year, after two evenings of merry making, I somehow found myself committed to helping out at the victory dinner. Damn you, never-ending bottles of Vino Nobile.