January 10th, 2011
Being familiar with studio crawls, pub crawls, wine walks, progressive dinners and church potlucks didn’t really condition us for a wine climb on a sunny afternoon in Italy’s Tuscan region.
But the event, which is basically a long walk with food and wine tastings along the hilly path, has become an annual tradition; one that ends with dessert.
Six years ago, the Italian commune of Pontedera, a city of 28,000 people near Pisa, created the ‘Mangia Longa’ (the long eat) to rediscover the territory and typical local products. The name plays on the title of the legendary 70-kilometer cross country ski race, the ‘marcialonga,’ which takes place every January in Northern Italy.
On this May day, more than 500 people (100 every 20 minutes) set out for the journey. We gathered at the city’s equestrian center with our daughter Elise, who lives in the area working for the U.S. Army, and her ’30-something’ Italian friends to climb for local Tuscan tastes. The crowd included grandpas pushing strollers, young couples, senior citizens with walking sticks, large families, and a couple of Americans – us. No English spoken here.
‘The total course length was a 5K,’ Elise said. ‘It was about two kilometers straight up the trail to the hilltop Treggiaia and then about three to reach Montecastello. Our group wanted to take the hardest climbs, so in the end we were grateful for the bus ride back.’
Before leaving, we picked up passes, hats, and wine glasses and sampled the Antipasto prepared by local bakers. It featured Tuscan toast with fresh tomato basil and mozzarella omelette with potatoes, fresh onions and ham. White wines from the cities of Pontedera, Cenaia and Fauglia accompanied the appetizers.
We ascended a fairly rugged trail; working hard on the first climb, resting as needed, remembering it wasn’t a race but a time for conversing, a little heavy breathing and photo taking of the Tuscan valley unfolding beneath us. The experience was about ‘as good as it gets.’
Finally, the high medieval city of Treggiaia, where young red local wines and Zuppa di Cavolo – cauliflower soup with bread and onions, awaited us. We took our time as the group debated taking the difficult or easy trail to Montecastello.
‘Difficile,’ said Jonathan, who grew up near by. ‘It’s not so bad.’ Later, this choice earned him a dousing with water bottles.
Montecastello volunteers greeted hungry climbers with Maiale in Porchetta, roast pork with beans, Formaggi Busti (cheese), and aged red local wines.
‘Cheese from the family Busti in Fauglia is very famous,’ Elise said. ‘Once I nearly ate half a wheel in one day.’
At this point, buses returned all climbers to the starting point of the equestrian center for dessert. The bus had been available throughout the entire course, which took about five hours, if needed.
At the center, where they breed Italian pedigreed horses and train riders, bakers prepared a party atmosphere with Trancia di Torta Golosa, a slice of sweet cake with dessert wines, champagne and coffee. Musicians played Italian blues and folk music, while the mayor of Pontedera schmoozed with his constituents. Slow food on a slow day – straight up. A nice day in the neighborhood.