Friday, September 15, 2017

Pienza: Pecorino, Pope Pius & Terrazza del Chiostro

Pliny the Elder praised it and Lorenzo the Magnificent was fond of it: pecorino di Pienza is a cheese that for centuries has embodied the taste of the land and traditions of one of Tuscany's most beautiful valleys, the Val d'Orcia. Located in the stunning hills between Montepulciano and Montalcino, Pienza is a charming Renaissance village that produces some of the best pecorino cheese in the country. It's also the first town we visit whenever we're in Umbria. Named after locally born Pope Pius II, Penza has been a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site since 1996. The architectural focal point is the square Piazza Pio II, surrounded by the Duomo and pope's family residence, Palazzo Piccolomini, and the beautiful gardens in the Palazzo's interior courtyard. However, the culinary spotlight is the town's Pecorino cheese together with the Pienza's friendly shop owners, quaint cobblestone streets, lovely restaurants and quiet unhurried lifestyle. With it's small size and charismatic centro storico, this beautiful little hilltop town captures the true essence of Tuscany.

Derived from the Italian word for sheep —'pecora' —pecorino is made from full cream ewe's milk and the naturally growing herbs and shrubs that the sheep graze on around Pienza, are what give the cheese its unique quality, texture and character. The cheese can be sold fresh, medium-aged and well matured, and while the flavours are quite different, it's a matter of taste when deciding which is your preferred choice: fresco, semistagionato or stagionato. Throughout the town, shops are laden with hundreds of flattened spheres of mouth-watering Pecorini, as well as Pienza's great local honey, which pairs up perfectly with the pungent stagionato. The finest and most beautiful restaurant in Pienza is La Terrazza del Chiostro, located in a 15th-century ex-convent beside the Palazzo Piccolomini. The cuisine and views from the outdoor terrace are simply sublime. Arriving on a quiet weekday afternoon, after visiting the Palazzo Piccolomini and our favourite cheese shop, we were seated at a beautiful table overlooking the spectacular Val d'Orcia, and enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of Crostata di Zucca with Carbonara Sauce, Millefoglie of Bufalo Mozzarella with Warm Cherry Tomato Gazpacho and Basil, homemade pasta and a bottle of bubbly pink Prosecco to toast our first week in Italy's culinary and cultural embrace.

One of two Medieval gates entering Pienza

Piazza Pio II with three-arched loggia on the ground floor of the Palazzo Comunale

Stone stairway to Palazzo Comunale Council Offices with carved plaque of Pope Pius II

The Duomo, which dominates the centre of the piazza, has a facade that is one of the earliest designed in the Renaissance manner

Wedding taking place on the steps of the Duomo outside the Palazzo Piccolomini

Interior of the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

Candles before Matteo di Giovanni's 'Madonna con S. Caterina, S. Matteo, 
S. Bartolomeo and S.Lucia'

Local policeman chatting casually with Pienza resident

Interior courtyard of Palazzo Piccolomini, the family residence of Pope Pius II

The beautiful Italian Renaissance gardens of the Palazzo with spectacular views into the distant landscape of the Val d'Orcia, home to the sheep who make Pienza's famed Pecorino

Fountain in the centre of the garden

The upper loggia of the Palazzo

View of the Duomo from the upper loggia of the Palazzo, shows the precipitous angle of the altar gradually listing down the hill

Pienza's Corso il Rossellini with brick bell tower of the Palazzo Comunale, 
was built to symbolize the superior power of the church

Our favourite cheese shop in Pienza

Wheels of pungent pecorino

Whole savoury and fatty roasted pork with crispy skin is an iconic sight in Macelleria throughout Umbria and Tuscany

Elegant courtyard entrance to Terazza del Chiostra

Gorgeous outdoor terrace of Terazza del Chiostra

Bottle of aqua frizzante on our table overlooking the Val D'Orcia

Corte alla Flora Brut Rosé Prosecco

A bubbly beginning to our lunch

Fresh warm focaccia

Luscious local olive oil for the warm focaccia

The lunch menu of chef Alessandro Rossi's refined Tuscan dishes

Warm salty crostata with raw and cooked zucchini on carbonara sauce

Crunchy millefoglie with creamy Bufalo Mozzarella, warm cherry tomato gazpacho and basil

Tuscan Chicken with new potatoes

Homemade 40-Yolk Tagliolini served with saffron sauce, bail pesto and fresh baby clams

A hot Macchiato to finish our lovely lunch

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