With its patchwork quilt landscape in every imaginable shade of green, snaking roads punctuated by pin thin cypress trees standing to attention like soldiers, and ethereal mornings when the land is covered in a gossamer-like layer of mist, Tuscany is so perfect it feels like a dream. Its rolling hills, postcard views and sun-dappled vineyards have had both Brits and Americans waxing lyrical about the region for centuries, filling their heads with fantastical notions of jacking in the day job and buying a husk of a farmhouse to bring back to glory, fortified by flagons of cherry-scented wine.
I am one of those people. On drizzly days in London when the sky is gunmetal grey, I dream of opening the shutters to my house on the hill and letting the sunlight stream in. I was delighted therefore to be given the chance to indulge in this fantasy, having been invited by Brunello pioneers Castello Banfi to stay at their charming 13th century guesthouse, Il Borgo, perched proudly on a hilltop in Montalcino.
One of the leading lights in Montalcino, Castello Banfi’s founders, John and Harry Mariani, introduced Americans to Italian wine in the late 1960s through their import company, which began by bringing in raspberry hued Lambrusco to the US, whose sweetness appealed to American palates. A decade later the Mariani brothers bought a patch of land in Montalcino and established Castello Banfi. Today the estate stretches to nearly 3,000 hectares, a third of which is under vine in a constellation of single vineyards interspersed by olive groves, wheat fields and plum trees.
In the 1700s the space now occupied by Il Borgo, formed of just 14 rooms including eight suites, served as a dwelling for farmers working for local landowners. The boutique hotel opened in 2007 with Italian designer Federico Forquet in charge of giving the place its chic farmhouse feel.
Visiting off-season in April, the place was wonderfully quiet, giving us the illusion, at times, that we had it to ourselves. The view from my window is breathtaking in the truest sense of the word, the expanse of vivid green vineyards stretching seemingly to eternity. I awake to chirping birds and the animated chatter of the staff getting breakfast ready. The pace here is deliciously slow, languorous even.
Our palatial suite comes complete with a writing desk, pink chaise longue and a sitting room filled with tempting treats like truffles, biscotti and bottles of Prosecco on ice. Soaring wooden beams on the cathedral-high ceiling frame the powder blue four-poster bed below. Just beneath my window is a pergola dripping with wisteria and a fountain with a face that reminds me of the Bocca della Verità that nearly bites Gregory Peck’s arm off in Roman Holiday. Framed sketches of apples and pears line the walls and in the terracotta-tiled bathroom Molten Brown goodies abound.
Our long, leisurely breakfasts taken on the terrace are a highlight of the visit. We could fill ourselves up by feasting on the view alone, but double the pleasure by gorging on tiny donuts oozing with custard and freshly made bread slathered in hazelnut spread, while sipping on cappuccinos with foam fanned peacock-like into feathers.
On a sunny Sunday morning we’re driven to a nearby farmhouse and introduced to Il Borgo’s affable head chef – the aptly named Domenico Francone – who is reaching for a Michelin star at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, La Sala di Grappoli. Outside a donkey munches the lush green grass and a cacophony of frogs sing their croaky chorus in the marshland. Proudly Puglian, Francone has spread his wings beyond Italy to gain valuable culinary experience in Melbourne and London, where he worked under Heinz Beck at Apsley’s at The Lanesborough; an experience that continues to influence and inspire him.
Francone, who has been at the helm at Il Borgo since 2014, originally trained as a pastry chef. During our cookery class he tells me he’s on tenterhooks as, having dreamt of a Michelin star for the last four years, has managed to miss the inspectors every time they visit. He’s worried he may miss them again as they are due imminently, as is the arrival of his first child. While we make papa pomodoro together – a rustic Tuscan dish of stale bread brought to life by sweet tomatoes – Francone talks animatedly about his 93-year-old grandmother, Giovanna, who still makes fresh orecchiette three times a week back in Puglia.
Today however, we’re making tagliatelle. A saucepan heaving with wild boar Bolognaise bubbles away in the background while we pass the pasta through a tiny silver machine six times until it’s as thin as newspaper. A lot of folding, curling and unfurling ensues until we’re left with a giant dish filled with golden ribbons of flour-flecked pasta ready for the pot.
Having worked hard for our lunch, it feels particularly sweet getting to enjoy it al fresco under the Tuscan sun with lashings of local wine from Banfi’s well-stocked cellars, including the grandly titled Excelsus 1999, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Montalcino that had the autumnal character of an ancient Bordeaux with its aromas of leather, pencil shavings and wet leaves. The earthy mound of wild boar ragù is as decadent as I hoped it would be, leaving little room for the main event: cubes of pork wrapped in pancetta drizzled in a rich prune glaze served with swirls of lemon mash. Stuffed as a Christmas goose, after lunch I flop on a sun lounger by the pool and drink in the emerald views.
The previous night we dined like royalty at La Sala di Grappoli, where Francone treated us to an evening of culinary fireworks culminating in exploding fagotelli carbonara – a trompe l’oeil trick he learnt from Beck. Formed of frilly sunshine yellow pasta parcels that look like tortellini, their demure demeanour hides a blast of flavour that reveals itself on biting, when the parcels erupt in a creamy, bacon-laced explosion. The devil is in the detail with Francone, who is capable of transforming the most humble of ingredients into heavenly flavour combinations, using the simplicity of Italian cooking as a springboard through which to show off his technical flair.
An amuse bouche of frozen tomato and creamy burrata is deceptively simple and yet incredibly accomplished, setting the tone for the feast that followed. Another highlight was a red shrimp, strawberry and sesame wafer starter, which sounds like an Alice in Wonderland dream and tasted equally playful with its powerful combination of fresh, fruity, nutty flavours, Francone playing with textures and temperatures throughout.
Another twist on temperature was the inclusion of a scoop of salty Parmesan ice cream on top of my steak tartare blanketed with slivers of summer truffle and foie gras shavings in an umami-rich ensemble. Particularly joyful on the wine front were generous flutes of Banfi’s Pinot Nero fizz, an elegant, ballet shoe pink sparkler brimming with summer fruits.
Before the long journey home, we’re given a tour of Banfi’s vineyards and cellar by winemaker Gabriele Pazzaglia. Spanning 950 hectares, 400 are dedicated to native grape Sangiovese, a variety that is perfectly adapted to the region’s sandy soils. The signature wine from Montalcino – Brunello – gets its name from the Italian word for brown, ‘bruno’, due to its reddish-brown colour. During our tour Gabriele guides us through a tasting of some of the highlights from the Banfi portfolio.
While all unquestionably unique, there are threads that weave them together, from a savoury balsamic aroma to a distinct liquorice note. After the tasting Gabriele leads us to the barrel room to show us his giant 500-litre casks, known as ‘botti’ in Italian. Without warning he plunges his head inside one of the barrels and inhales deeply, then asks me to join him. We’ve only just met and he’s asking me to sniff his botti. I oblige, and am rewarded with an enveloping aroma reminiscent of a library full of leather-bound books with a roaring fire on the go. Back in England I hear news that Domenico is now the proud father of a son, Michelangelo, but he will have to wait until November to find out whether the (Michelin) stars aligned.
For more information on Il Borgo, including details of packages and events, visit www.castellobanfiilborgo.com.