The pretty hilltop town of San Miniato, situated halfway between Pisa and Florence, is tied so closely to its food that even a mention of its name will spark the imagination of those who know it for its rare delicacy, the tartufo bianco, or white truffle.
San Miniato made its mark in the Middle Ages as a strategic rest stop along the via Francigena, the pilgrim's route than connected Canterbury to Rome. Much of the city layout that you see today has not changed since the twelfth-century walls were built, and many of its medieval stones still hold their place. The charming historic centre is a true medieval town of steep, narrow streets leading to the thirteenth-century Frederick tower, La Rocca, that identifies San Miniato from miles away. Although it was destroyed in World War II, the 1958 version is a faithful reconstruction.
From almost anywhere in the town, even along the main street, via 4 Novembre, which winds its way along the ridge of the town's hill, a panoramic view of the surrounding valley opens up and reveals what San Miniato is really all about. For centuries, farmers have tended, shaped and worked the land; the result is a painterly combination of perfectly combed vineyards, olive groves and a dense forest of oak, willow and poplar trees that mysteriously guards the secrets of San Miniato's famously fragrant white truffles.
A drive around the hills of San Miniato will reveal some of Tuscany's most picturesque landscapes. Moreover, the area is a food lover's delight, acclaimed not only for its white truffles, but also for its local salumi and wine. A wonderful excuse to taste these delicacies is the San Miniato White Truffle Festival, held every year over three weekends during November. One of the best food festivals in Tuscany, the streets and squares of the historical centre fill extensively with food and wine stands, and the smell of truffle literally emanates from the very pores of the town for the entire month.
A visit to the butcher and norcineria of Sergio Falaschi (on via A. Conti 18/20, San Miniato) is a must for salumi lovers. Only here will you find such tasty delicacies as spuma di gota, a delicious cream made of pig's cheek, and lonzino di San Miniato al vin santo, a pork loin cured in Tuscany's favourite dessert wine. Available only during truffle season, Falaschi's fresh truffled sausages alone are worth the trip.
During the truffle festival, many of the local winemakers offer wine tastings and sell their products at stands. One of the most interesting wines is made by Pietro Beconcini, whose vineyard is located in the valley of San Miniato (visits and wine tastings can be organized by appointment; email firstname.lastname@example.org). Beconcini makes Italy's only Temperanillo wine, a Spanish grape that was found on the family-run property, planted by Spanish pilgrims centuries ago as they were passing through on the via Francigena that flanks the vineyard. The result is a wonderfully expressive and uniquely Tuscan wine.
Of course, the highlight of visiting the town at this time of year is choosing your own white truffle (or Tuber Magnatum Pico). Once you have a fresh white truffle in your kitchen, you'll want to use it as soon as you can, when the aroma is strongest. As each day passes, your truffle loses both its aroma and weight. For an item that costs 1,500 to 3,500 euro per kilo (or more), this means you want to use it at its freshest. It will keep well for a maximum of six days, when lovingly wrapped in paper towel and sealed in a glass jar.
White truffles are best served as simply as possible and must absolutely not be cooked; use them raw, freshly sliced over hot food where the heat will release its intense aroma and flavour. White truffles pair perfectly with simple ingredients: fresh egg pasta, polenta or dishes with butter, eggs, potatoes or cheese. The simpler, the better.
Getting to San Miniato
By car: Take the FI-PI-LI superstrada from Florence towards Pisa and exit at San Miniato.
By train: Trains run regularly (usually twice hourly) from Florence SMN station towards Pisa. Get off at the Fucecchio-San Miniato station. At the front of the station, you can catch a bus to take you directly to San Miniato historic centre, which is a few kilometers away. During the truffle festival, a special shuttle bus will be available to take visitors to and from the station to the centre of town. The tourist information centre is located in piazza del Popolo.