When a much loved editor of a magazine specializing in Italian lifestyle called and asked me if I would like to go and hunt for a bore in Chianti, I was dubious. I never did find the Italians boring. When she gently pointed out that spelling was never my strong point, (she should know) I got very excited. Wild Boar! Crickey. I mean help! I mean yes, of course.
So it was that I was to be seen at crack of dawn in Gatwick airport, dressed nervously in my late father's old Saville Row shooting tweeds, a flat cap and a Barber, catching the daily Meridiana flight to Florence. (The Italian budget airlines are great. You even get something to eat.)
I was heading for the Castello di Querceto in Chianti Classico, the hugely successful old estate owned and run by the François family.
Alessandro Francois left his highly paid industrial engineering job in Milan about 20 years ago to rescue the Castello from decline. Like many of the local estates it had suffered from terrible market pressures and a lot of misguided legislation. It needed to be rescued. They were producing about 50.000 bottles a year at the time and it was not viable. It had been in the family since Noah was a lad and Alessandro and his delightful wife Maria Antonietta never doubted that it was their destiny to rebuild the place. Now it produces over 1,000,000 bottles a year and some of the most wonderful wines of the area, including a magnificent super-tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend called Cignale, or Wild Boar. It seemed a good omen.
I was met at the airport by Paulo, Alessandro's nephew (this really is a family business) and we set off due south towards "Greve in Chianti." I thought at the time that the caution with which he drove was largely down to his natural good manners and the knowledge that it takes foreigners a while to get used to the Italian way. In retrospect I reckon it probably had more to do with the fact that it was raining so hard that we could only see about 10 meters in front of us. It was to rain like this the entire time I was there. Not such a good omen.
Paulo's English is a little better than my Italian, (not that that says a lot). We agreed that in order to practice he would use my mother tongue and I his. He asked me if I had eaten on the plane, and suggested that if I had not we could stop at an excellent Trattoria on the way to the Castello. I explained that I had eaten, (see above) and there was no need for him to go to that trouble. Two minutes later we drew up outside the Trattoria for lunch and I started to worry, not for the last time, what it was I had actually said.
The lunch was absolutely delicious. It was the Funghi season and where better is there to be in the autumn than Tuscany? Ravioli with ricotta and mushrooms to start, followed by deep fried assorted wild mushrooms with roast spuds all washed down with Alessandro's Chianti Classico. Bliss; and the omens were looking up. There was a large wild boar's head staring down at me from the wall.
We rolled up at the Castello di Querceto around mid-afternoon and I was immediately entranced. A huge imposing dark stone building with towers, battlements and courtyards with peacocks wandering around in the formal gardens; it looked and felt exactly how I had hoped it would. Add to that the relentless pelting rain and thick fog and I was feeling more and more like the prince of Denmark by the minute.
Alessandro greeted me in that relaxed way that only really happy people can. He took me immediately to see his winery. We wandered around his great new computerized fermentation vats and looked reverently at the rows of maturation casks. He told me that his harvest had been interrupted by the rain and that he had about 9 hours of picking still to do. I would have been dejected by this but nothing seems to phase Alessandro. I pointed out that at least it meant that all his farm workers would be free to help with the boar hunt in the morning.
This was the moment that the omens started to go pear-shaped. The unflappable Allesandro looked quizzical, then bewildered and finally horrified. "You have come to see a boar hunt?" he said.
"Well yes" say I, "your PR agency asked my magazine to send someone to cover the boar hunt tomorrow and here I am"
A torrent of Italian which I had absolutely no hope of understanding came from Alessandro but gradually it transpired that the "Boar Hunting Expedition" consisted of a couple of friends coming over to shoot a few Pheasants. They had wondered why on earth anyone should want to come from Britain, the centre of the pheasant shooting world, to watch a few jolly Italians do a little rough shooting, but had put it down to the generally accepted lunacy of the English.
After much laughter and a general inability to work out how on God's earth the misunderstanding could have happened, Alessandro lead me out of the modern winery, into the oldest part of the cellar where he keeps his archive of ancient vintages, and up a tiny stone spiral staircase which came out into his kitchen. There, at the end of this vast room, was Antonnieta, cooking our dinner over an open fire. We had Pumpkin soup and two inch thick steaks from a breed of cattle unique to the area. We drank several of the wines of which the Francois family are justifiably proud and all agreed that coffee late at night kept us awake and should be left to the young.
We went out shooting the next morning in the pouring rain and fog. I shot lots of photographs none of which came out and Alessandro's guests shot three pheasants. I have rarely, if ever, enjoyed a days shooting as much and the lunch which followed was just spectacular. I made new friends in Italy, discovered some breathtaking wines, and whilst there was a slight shortage of Boar I saw absolutely not one single sign of a bore.