March 24, 2008

How Will We Winter? Aging Gracefully, with a Glass of Wine and a Tuscan Bareback Rider.

Aging interests me. Like a beautiful morning, this life can’t last forever. So how do we cultivate ourselves, and age like a good wine?

How will we winter? There may be something poetic about shriveling leaves and bare branches, but I don’t like frozen fingertips and blue lips. Still, when winter arrives, I give in. It’s a time to kindle the fires, sit with one’s hands around a steaming cup of tea or broth and breathe out. Experiencing all the seasons makes for a well-rounded disposition. It’s a time of rest. Once warm and cozy, I begin to love winter. My friend Ginny says, “Open yourself to it-don’t be afraid of the cold, you’ll adjust,” as she dives into a cold mountain stream (I prefer to dive off the back of a boat into the Mediterranean!). Some people are simply heroic. They ride life with upaya, or skillful means. A cheerful, open mind that transforms obstacles into opportunities, resistance into acceptance.

And so I was inspired to take up horseback riding lessons in the Tuscan hills…from a dashing 78-year-old.

Piero Pieri rides his horse, Daliant, around the ring at a canter, his hands never touching the reins. Rather, his hands rest idly on his hips, thumbs forward, fingers pointed backwards. His posture is perfect. The grip of his knees keeps him safe and gives the horse direction. He slows and comes to an easy full stop, swings his leg over and slides off his horse. “Ah ha!” he said, standing at a striking 6’4″. La paura e inutile. “Fear is useless,” he said. “You need technique and courage.”

Piero is an old-school ex-Carabinieri police horseman. He’s strict. Quite quickly, I found myself in the military and had to do everything in the most disciplined way. “When you step into the stirrup to get on, stay erect, then swing your leg over and find the other stirrup before sitting down.” Riding English saddle proves intimidating. It’s all about posture, holding the reins in the correct manner (complete with crop; a short whip that must change hands every time you change direction), keep your knees in and heels down. Seems simple enough. “Mane giu! Mane giu!” Keep your hands down! Riding around the ring trying to keep my hands still, body erect, heels down, knees in and trot one-two-one-two was challenging…but not as challenging as jumping. “Stop flopping around! Keep your seat!” He’s yelling from the inside of the ring. It’s like taming the wild mind. I found myself out of control, riding right on the edge of my fear, nearly falling off more than once.

I took lessons for two weeks before Piero would let me ride in the open countryside with him. When the day came, he hooked a line to my horse’s bridle and we rode off, side by side. It was thrilling! Transmitting his confi dence to me, what could have felt silly, wasn’t. I could feel my own confidence grow within me. We rode through silvery olive groves and just-harvested vineyards with morning mist in our lungs. When the incline of a hill was too steep, we stood up in the stirrups, grabbing the mane as the horses made their way. At a certain point Piero looked at me and said, “Should I let go of the cord?” I looked at him and smiled and said, “No,” joking. He laughed: “Ah! Sei innamarata!” You’re in love!” He let go of the cord and I trotted in perfect rhythm the rest of the ride, feeling happy that I too could keep learning and stretching my so-called limitations. Galloping through the countryside all by myself. In that moment I felt that it wasn’t too late to learn a few things I had left on my list. It’s our thoughts that make us old, our bodies fragile. Piero, so vibrant, so masculine-had mellowed to perfection. My eyes opened to the extra-ordinary.

* * *
I recently met up with Count Ugo and Countess Lisa Contini Bonacossi in London. They came up from Tuscany to attend a book signing of a mutual friend, Lori de Mori. The book profiled 25 Tuscan artisans, including the Count and Countess. It reminded me of visiting their noble table at Cappezzana, 17 years ago, for one of the most memorable lunches of my life. Five courses were paired with five of their wines. Lunch as usual. The goldilocks of the lot was Ugo’s prize-winning Vin Santo (Holy Wine), a non-fortifi ed raisin wine made from Trebbiano, Malvasia and San Colombano white grapes. Harvested and hung on bamboo racks, they are left to endure frequent, extreme temperature fluctuations-creating complexity of aroma and taste. Aged for five years in small oak and chestnut barrels, the wine reaches a stability that allows it to age for an almost indefinite period of time. Lori quotes the Count in her book, Beaneaters and Bread Soup: “[The wine] is like a statue. There’s no way to improve it.” Age, in this case, is not decay but fruition.

“Youth is fragile,” Nate Ready, Master Sommelier at age 29, reminds me. I see the parallels between properly made wines, aged cheeses, long friendships and seasoned relationships. Vin Santo is a vino da meditazione. It’s the best you can offer a friend (or priest) if they drop by unexpectedly. It was once described to me as “like a kiss on the lips.” So naturally sweet, it can be enjoyed as a sipping wine to savor with your true love. My favorite Tuscan dessert is a glass of Vin Santo with percorino staginato (100 percent aged sheep’s milk cheese) dipped in dark chestnut honey. The combination of deep flavors create the equivalent of an elegant waltz on the palate.

I saw the Contini Bonacossis at the airport. We were on the same flight, headed back to Florence. Count Ugo had picked up a new book and said it was divertente, fun. I asked them how they were getting back to Cappezzana so late in the night. It would take them over a half an hour. “Oh, I’ll drive,” he said. “I left the car at the airport car park.” The Count is 87; the Countess 83. Making friends with change is not easy. We resist change, not recognizing that things always take us to new places. “We build on what we’ve learned so that we can mature,” says Count Ugo about winemaking. In winter we can take the time to tend to the maturation of our being and savor our own inner taste.

Peggy Markel‘s Culinary Adventures in Tuscany, Sicily and Morocco bring friends to the table in pursuit of pleasure, culture and community, and an authentic experience of the materia prima that make for a truly good life: peggymarkel.com.

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