One summer we rented a Tuscan farmhouse about a 30 minute drive west of Siena near the village of Sovicille. It was set on the grounds of Villa Cetinale, a large country house constructed in 1680 by the great Baroque architect Carlo Fontana for Cardinal Flavio Chigi, son of a prominent Sienese banking family and nephew of Pope Alexander VII. The Villa’s manicured property included a boxwood parterre, potted trees, beds of flowers, an olive grove, and wild ilex forests. A long, irregular flight of stone steps ascended a steep slope behind the Villa to a hermitage at the crest of the hill where the Cardinal retreated on a daily pilgrimage to repent and attempt to redeem his entry into paradise after murdering a rival in a fit of jealousy.
Shortly after our arrival we took a morning walk through the fields and forests surrounding our farmhouse. We quickly discovered a mowed path, punctuated by ancient stones carved with animal images, that led through the forest. Small niche-like structures, their interiors decorated with frescoes, appeared at points where the path turned. It took very little time to learn from Luisa, the house caretaker, that Siena’s famous horse race, the Palio, was run in these forests during periods of plague or other calamities, when the city of Siena was not a safe venue. Palio plates, sold throughout Siena as tourist souvenirs, reflect the colors and animals represented on the flags of Siena’s seventeen contrade, or city wards, each of which sponsors a horse in the race. I couldn’t resist.
CAPELLINI ALLA RAMATUELLE
(Luisa appeared one day as I was assembling a fast pasta lunch with an uncooked sauce of basil and fresh tomatoes. “The Madonna – I was with my toddler son – makes pasta!” she exclaimed in astonishment. “But it’s not Italian,” she added, very disappointed.)
TUSCAN WHITE BEAN SOUP WITH KALE
(Luisa informed us that the Villa’s owner, a British MP, requested a dinner invitation. His interest, more than to enjoy our company, was to enjoy this soup, one of Luisa’s specialties, unavailable at the Villa due to a war between the cooks.)