Bill Menard here, sitting in my hotel room, enjoying a nice helping of Siena morning.
Menard family lore has it that the patriarch of the family, a bit of a scallywag in his youth and one who supported the Boston Red Sox as much as the next man or boy living in Cohassett, Massachusetts, grew tired of hearing others’ names announced over the air during the game broadcasts. As the story goes, he and his brother, then both south of ten years old decided to send their own telegram to the Red Sox broadcast team, touting the joy one gets from listening to the Red Sox as well as the smooth taste of Kentucky Colonel pipe tobacco. During a break in the action the town was shocked to hear that “Lyman and Lincoln Menard are sitting on our porch, rooting for the Red Sox and enjoying a pipe full of Kentucky Colonel.” And so perhaps it is genetic that I, too, feel the urge to broadcast to the world just what is going on in my little corner of the world, here in Siena, enjoying a dose of Tuscan morning. It’s much healthier than pipe smoking.
Today’s installment is not about Siena; that will come later. This entire trip has been an exercise in catching up, as we have raced across the boot of Italy from the knee to the heel, back up to the knee, down to the shin, back to the knee and finally to some place that would, if Italy really were a boot (with a leg inside), be covered with muscle and bone. We have not exactly worked ourselves to the bone, but the constant movement and travel, packing and unpacking has left little time to chronicle and post our (fascinating) adventures in real time. So while we awake this morning in Siena, in the heart of Tuscany, we are writing about what transpired a couple of days ago less than a hundred miles away in Umbria, having in the interim spent a day in Rome, said our goodbyes to Austin and Norma at the Rome airport, made a too-brief and ill-planned stop in Viterbo and fought our way against traffic and an annoying rental car here to Siena. Stay tuned for these exciting episodes, dear reader, and why not fire up a bowl of Kentucky Colonel to keep you company along the way?
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It is Sunday morning and Perugia is very quiet, a pleasant contrast to last night’s crowds. Today is perhaps the most important day of the trip; we plan to spend it with our friend and associate Javier Casuso to hammer out the details of a deal in which we will acquire a long-term rental of a charming property outside of Perugia, with the intention of establishing a business of renting to vacationers and organizing Bella Italia-led groups to Italy. After a quick coffee and pastry, we drive to Brufa to meet with Walter, the owner of the house we are hoping to rent. It is a short drive, just a few minutes outside of Perugia and although the day is hazy and gray, the house is delightful. As we walk through the airy bedrooms upstairs we begin to think of how we will furnish the house and how different types of families might use it. The downstairs kitchen is perfect, a huge rustic space with high wood beamed ceilings and a huge wooden fireplace. The room is big enough for a table for 12 and a few steps away one can walk out onto a covered portico. The garden is right outside and we envision the food we can create. Walter promises to start work on the back of the bottom floor adding two more bedrooms and bathrooms. We walk outside to look at the garden and the pool. We can imagine a few lounge chairs and some ceramic tables that will soon be sitting under the olive trees in our own little retreat.
Negotiations take time and much has changed since our initial conversation with Walter in October. We go back and forth and then agree to meet again tomorrow. We are cold and our feet are wet as we head back to the car somewhat disappointed. Javier happily tells us not to worry, that we are going to look at another property. Great! How big, where is it, does it have a pool? No worries, we will find out when we get there. The drive is beautiful and after every turn we look to see if the next farmhouse could be ours. The drive goes on and on and we get further and further from the highway. The view becomes even more amazing as we look out over the rich, fertile Umbrian landscape, spying many of the houses we had passed along the way. At last we pull up to the house we have come to visit. It is not quite what we had in mind. I am sure that in its day it was a beautiful old stone farmhouse, but in the present it looks like the shed from which Jed Clampett took his family when he discovered black gold. At least it has its original sone floors, which are slightly (okay very) uneven and its original walls. There is not a bit of plumbing or electricity to be had. It takes a great deal of imagination to see the beauty of the house and we can’t escape the dollar signs dancing in every nook and cranny. We leave without even asking the price. No doubt, ten years from now some canny investor will be sipping a glass of Montefalco Rosso, looking over these same hills, congratulating himself on his wise investment.
We drive to the town of Bevagna for lunch, one of Umbria’s most charming small towns, crowned by an extremely well preserved historic central square. The restaurant is, of course, unmarked, but we open the door and are greeted with a room warmed by a fire and the smell of rich Umbrian fare, a simple hearty cooking that highlights grilled meats and rich pastas that we have longed for despite many fine meals along the coasts. We are inspired by the fire and order bistecca alla Fiorentina for lunch. In the meantime, the pastas are house made and are great. The steak arrives perfectly grilled and for once it is not enough food – perhaps this is a blessing. We finish lunch and walk around the small town. Down every street there is a wonderful view of rooftops and arches. Bill and Austin take photo after photo.
We return to Perugia and plan to meet for dinner outside Assisi, at a restaurant that Bill visited last October. Since then the legend of this place has grown to almost epic proportions and we decide that we all must give it a try. La Stalla, which means the barn, is a simple room located next to a campground above Assisi. Nearly all of the food is prepared on a wood fired grill that is in the middle of the room, providing entertainment as well as nourishment. Over the years the whitewashed stone walls have become covered with soot from the fire, adding to the charm of the place.
We start with the grilled stuffed tartes – round bread toasted over the fire and filled with sausages, cheese or proscuitto. This is accompanied by a wooden bowl of polenta topped with tomato sauce and some grilled sausage crumbles. After a while the grilled meats start to arrive – sausages, lamb chops, pigeon, chicken. Our eyes roll back and we begin to forget what is arriving, simply trying to keep up with the onslaught of food. Finally little ramekins of melted cheeses arrive, which are smeared over more grilled bread, adding a satisfying layer on top of the animal slaughter that has preceded it. We call the evening and the day quits, forgoing a grappa in light of the long windy drive back to Perugia. And, because Italy’s restaurants have recently banned smoking (even in restaurants where the walls are covered with soot), we don’t light up a pipe full of Kentucky Colonel. That can wait until baseball season begins.