It was pretty much harvest time and each vine had immaculate bunches of grapes hanging at perfectly spaced intervals. We stopped to try a few and (being French) Augustin explained to me the different varieties of grapes; and which wines each was used to make. The grapes were delicious. And the local farmers were obviously pretty relaxed about motorcyclists riding into their vineyard and guzzling the crop. I could only wince as I imagined the reaction of an English vineyard owner to a group of dirt bikers appearing on his land and sampling the produce. Presumably the same reaction an Italian vineyard owner has to English wine, I guess…
More varied riding followed before we came to San Gusme where Augustin had organised our lunch stop. As a pasty-skinned Englishman who had been in rain-swept Hertfordshire the day before, it seemed almost magical to be sitting in the sun on a Tuscan hilltop.
A gentle breeze rattled the fig tree behind me and lifted the sweat off my face. I leant back in my chair and had a few affectionate thoughts about the rain pouring out of the gutters at home... ‘Hmmmmmmm’.
I was just explaining to Popi how I could no longer drink at lunchtime when a large beer arrived. I contemplated the drips of moisture beading the glass… the golden colour… the perfectly proportioned foamy head; and started to drink it. A carafe of wine and several plates of locally produced food arrived. Each of them was delicious.
All the while Augustin and Popi kept up an informative commentary about the origins and merits of everything we were eating. The starter or Antipasti included white beans on Bruschetta. Popi began to run through the merits of beans. His depth of knowledge was so extensive that half way through I began to take notes:
Zolfini. These have their skins removed and are an excellent bean with a lot of taste.
Cocchini. Small round and cheap. Not for best.
Borlotti. A bean of no account. Okay for feeding to prisoners.
Cannelini. A noble bean. Large and with a floury texture.
Faggolini Verde. A fine bean. Best prepared simply as a salad with a good oil and vinegar.
Next came the Primo Platte. This was a choice of two pastas: one made with cheese and one with meat. As well as his native French, Augustin speaks excellent English and Italian. Using this ability he takes care to include everyone in the conversation. It was fascinating to be able to access Popi’s vast store of knowledge on Tuscan food, motorbikes, farming and building. Talk ranged from how to regenerate oak forests to why Italians are so good at bathrooms, and ten on to the different walks of mules and horses. A horse will place his feet very carefully ‘precismo’, whereas mules on the other hand trundle along like a wobbly toy and plonk their feet down anywhere. This day was turning out to be as surreal as it was enjoyable.
At one point we were discussing how, unlike the French, the Italians hardly ever demonstrate. I asked when was the last time something had caused them to take to the streets? ‘Berlusconi’ came the reply.
Trying to be funny I said: I liked his injection-moulded hair. The comment caused uproar. I think it must have been mis-translated as ‘I like Berlusconi’ There was a tirade of invective about Berlusconi and his corrupt government. Augustin leant over and said ‘Don’t get him started on Berlusconi.’ I managed to lower the temperature by concluding that his hair was ridiculous, his behaviour unspeakable, and the quicker he ended up in prison on a diet of Borlotti beans, the better.