Keep your Tusan sun, it’s Autumn’s mellow mists that produce the gastronomic and bucolic treasures that give the region its spectacular glory. Gavin Bell cycles through it.
With the searing heat of summer faded, Tuscany is quiet. The grape leaves have turned from gold to russet. September is Vendemmia in Tuscany, the month of the grape harvest and a cultural event celebrated with gusto by winegrowers as an excuse to meet, eat and taste wines, and wager whose is best. One gastro treat of this month that is not in liquid form is schiacciata con uva, focaccia with leftover ripe grapes baked into it, a sweet and sour treat.
Cycling along chalk white roads in the sun, between fields of red earth on one side and green crops on the other, it looks as if the landscape had been coloured to match the Italian flag. I pass two old men walking hand in hand along a quiet country road near the hamlet of Villamagna in the hills between Pisa and Florence. A breeze ripples through a field of long grass so rich and lush and uniform that it looks like brushed velvet. The meadows are alive with birdsong and buzzing with curious insects, and there are daisies and poppies and Spanish broom, and cornflowers and marigolds too, shimmering along hedgerows and dry-stone walls.
Amongst the classical composition of hills and fields and slender cypress trees, the scent of flowers and fresh-mown hay linger. I approach Monteriggioni, a 13th century fortified hill town that presides over the northern boundary of a thickly wooded region known as the Montagnola Senese. Its ringed walls with 14 sentry towers sit slightly awry like a tilted crown, a kind of Camelot at a funny angle. It is absurdly romantic, exactly the sort of place that a knight of the Round Table would have popped into for roast wild boar on his way to the Crusades.
One day, during the siesta, I find myself in the village of San Donato in Fronzano. Everything is closed, but the owner of the Rio Bar takes me into his darkened store where the shelves are laden with Florentine prosciutto and pecorino cheese from Siena. He fills fresh bread rolls with them and I sit on his porch, reveling in the savoury, sweet ham and sharp flavour of the cheese, and especially his typical Tuscan generosity.
A few days later at a 16th-century farm near Florence with views over the Arno River and the Pratomagno mountains, I witness the olive harvest. It is now late September, and the farmer, his family, friends and workers are harvesting the olives by hand. It is a slow, laborious process that begins early in the morning when the hills are still wreathed in mist, and continues until a rusty old truck is fully loaded and rattles off to the local frantoio, the communal mill where the olives give up their golden oil.
Autumn in Tuscany is a slow motion affair, clinging to the ripeness of summer but dallying with the winter frost.
Where to stay:
Four Seasons Firenze: Trompe l’oeil elegance in two restored Renaissance palazzos with 117 rooms and suites and walled 11-acre garden. £400; +39 055 2626 1; www.fourseasons.com
Castello del Nero Hotel & Spa: A splendid 12th-century castle and destination ESPA spa with 50 rooms and suites in Chianti. Rooms from £385; +39 055 806 470; www.castello-del-nero.com
Il Borgo: The 14-room boutique hotel at the Castello Banfi winery is a perfect hideaway deep in the green hills of Montalcino. Rooms from £337; +39 0577 877 700; www.castellobanfi.it
Castello di Vicarello: Four secluded suites and a private villa at a 14th-century estate surrounded by gardens, woodland and olive groves. Rooms from £254; +39 0564 990 447; www.castellodivicarello.it
L’Andana: Chef Alain Ducasse’s 33-room sumptuous inn and La Trattoria Toscana restaurant in the heart of the Maremma. Rooms from £340; +39 0564 944 800; www.andana.it