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If there were a Tuscan town that had it all for me, it might just be San Miniato (and not just because it's my husband's hometown). There are rare white truffles involved. And beautiful countryside views and natural wine. And, like most of Italy, plenty of history—without the tourists.
Not to be confused with the medieval church that sits above Florence, the town of San Miniato is probably not on anyone's radar these days, so few are the tourists there. Yet it sits in a sweet spot: on a hilltop halfway between Florence and Pisa, and equidistant from Lucca, Siena, and San Gimignano. Once a popular pit stop on the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena, San Miniato's town centre, which snakes along a hill top, has sweeping views across the Tuscan landscape every which way you look. And amongst its dense oak and chestnut forests hide the town's specialty: white truffles.
White truffles are one of Mother Nature's little tricks. Humans haven't figured out yet how to cultivate them, let alone collect them on their own (although you can train a dog to do it very well). They grow where black truffles don't. And they seem to grow only in certain areas in symbiosis with certain trees—and indeed, they have a price tag that reflects their rarity.
Italy is blessed with a few white truffle regions, including San Miniato. In fact, it was in San Miniato where the world's largest white truffle was found and gifted to President Eisenhower in 1954—the town's main claim to fame.
It's a very good reason to visit in November, when the San Miniato White Truffle Festival is in full swing. Lasting three weekends that often roll over into the first weekend of December, the festival perfumes the entire town with the scent of white truffles, which you can buy directly from the local tartufai (truffle hunters), or you can sample them in any of the local restaurants in simple dishes that let the white truffle sing: a fried egg or fresh tagliolini, for example, which are just tossed in butter and covered in shavings of the precious tuber.
My favourite butcher shop, Sergio Falaschi, which has been around for five generations, makes the most delectable white truffle and pork sausages (my husband eats these raw, the skins removed and the perfumed sausage meat spread on toasted bread) and other local specialties like blood sausage and cured hams infused in Vin Santo. They've got one of the best views around from the back of the butcher shop, which has been opened into an informal eatery—choose from the meat counter or from Mamma Lina's daily menu.
For a more formal meal, just outside of the historical centre is Papaveri e Papere. With seasonally led menus split into themes “from the land” and “from the sea,” you can taste the area's best traditions and produce in a contemporary setting. The housemade tortelloni (large ravioli) stuffed with wild boar stew (a rustic and ancient Tuscan dish which you would normally eat on a bed of soft polenta), served with black olive powder and a beef and citrus reduction, are a highlight, and during truffle season you can expect to find white truffles sprinkled throughout the menu. An interesting wine list with a focus on small producers from the area tops it all off.
Local wineries in the neighbouring hills abound, but a particularly wonderful spot to visit is Cosimo Maria Masini, a picturesque biodynamic winery where native grapes are grown, pressed, and fermented into elegant wines like "Daphne," a macerated white wine which would go nicely with those aforementioned white truffle–laced dishes.
San Miniato is also well-placed near a number of charming, stone-paved, slow-paced villages where you can take a stroll or soak in the piazza life with an espresso or a spritz in hand. In twenty minutes by car you can reach Vinci, Leonardo's hometown, where you'll find a museum dedicated to the Renaissance man himself; or Cerreto Guidi, where you can visit the stunning Villa Medici, built in the 16th century to serve as their hunting lodge (it's also where Isabella de Medici was strangled to death by her husband in 1576 either for having an affair or for being in the way of his affair with a 19-year-old noblewoman—depending on which story you hear).
For the more outdoorsy types, you can walk parts of the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena, through the undulating hills and valleys of the Arno and soak in the countryside views slowly. A hike from San Miniato to San Gimignano, nicknamed Tuscany's so-called “Medieval Manhattan” for its towers, is 41 kilometers long (25 miles), for example, or 23 kilometers (14 miles) through a beautifully kept part of the route to Gambassi Terme. Maps are available through the Via Francigena website.
But if you're like me, a visit to San Miniato means an experience very much away from the hordes of tourists flooding Florence and Pisa, where you can wander from one side of the street to the other, popping into a bar full of locals for artisan beer and crostini with anchovies at Birra & Acciughe or a platter of house-made finocchiona and other cold cuts at the back of Falaschi's butcher shop, or grabbing a glass of wine in the enoteca Piazza del Popolo. It's a place to sit back and enjoy the views—if you're lucky, the air perfumed with white truffles.
What's your favorite city in Italy? Let us know in the comments below.