Saturday night and Sunday morning are very different affairs in Bagno Vignoni in Tuscany, a small hilltop town 50 kilometres in the Val DOrcia south-east of Siena renowned for its hot water spring and pools. Although judging from the drawing of the town in the 14th century on the menu and wine list of the Osteria del Leone where we had dinner there has been very little physical change to the town over the centuries other than the onset of tourism and cars. The difference may be more in how those in the know take advantage of this natural asset.
As we left the Osteria after a substantial dinner at 11pm we decided to walk out under the stars towards the viewpoint over the rolling local countryside. En route the narrow channel of warm, sulphurous spring water that cuts through the rocky platform leading to the cliff edge was lined even at this time of night by scores of Italians sitting in the dark taking advantage, at last, of some cooler night air.
The following morning at 9.30 we joined the regulars who pay the 12 euro admission charge to the pool and gardens next to the Hotel Posta Marcucci to wallow in the hot springs for an hour and a half. I promptly realised my first mistake of this all- too- brief tour across the more rugged and isolated countryside of southern Tuscany where it seemed impossible to reconcile the current temperature of 35 degrees Centigrade with the signs along the road for ice, fog and snow that will inevitably follow in November along with the harvest of wine, truffles and chestnuts.
My mistake had been not to have gone into the hot springs before opening the menu at the Osteria because whatever their remedial properties may be this immersion certainly produced an appetite of immense proportions that would have helped me fully do justice to what their kitchen has to offer.
Their menu is, as in all the best Italian trattoria, a very simple affair with half a dozen choices at each of the three courses (antipasti, primi and secondi piatti) but it is also one which has not deviated from its historical past. Fish must have always been either difficult to source or well past its sell by date should it ever have arrived at such a hilltop redoubt – even in much wealthier and more cosmopolitan Florence, I was reliably told, salt cod and squid sautéed with spinach were the only two fish dishes likely to feature regularly – so here it never features.
Instead there are other attractions most notably among the antipasti a mousse of ricotta and courgettes on a really gutsy pesto and a pungent tomato soup thickened with bread. For meat lovers there is the bistecca Fiorentina, a fricassee of rabbit with diced almonds, thin slices of roast pork with rocket and pecorino and tripa Fiorentina, which even as enthusiastic a follower of this dish as myself could not face on such a hot night.
And that was despite sitting outside at one of the ten tables in the Osterias charming garden where the wind had gratefully picked up and we were surrounded by ancient walls of at least six different textures and eras creating a rustic setting that any modern city centre restaurateur would willingly pay an interior designer a small fortune to replicate.
The design of Ristorante Daniela in San Cascaino dei Bagni, another hilltop town famous for its thermal spring, is cool in both the accepted senses of the word. Its two large stone arched rooms provide a wonderfully inviting welcome from the heat of the day while its simple attractive interior is a tribute to a collaboration between Tricia Guild, of Londons Designers Guild, and the owners, Silvestro and Daniela Baraldo. And their friendship with Richard Polo, Guilds restaurateur husband, explained why as we were finishing our meal the Baraldos were sitting down to a late lunch of papardelle with a wild boar sauce and Parma ham with melon alongside New York restaurateur Joe Allen proudly sporting a Bar Centrale publicising his bar on W 46th Street but inspired by the typical small town bar next door.
The four pages that comprise the Danielas monthly menu and wine list could not be simpler, more attractive or more mouth watering. It is in fact the kind of place where you only manage to decide what to order when the waitress is standing in front of your table pen and pad in hand. We passed, reluctantly, on the pasta with summer truffles and the tortelli stuffed with pigeon and ordered instead a wild mixed salad with deep fried anchovies and pine nuts and the copious house antipasti which included some delicious cep mushrooms. And it was just too difficult to ignore a dish of thin slices of baked pecorino served on top of a puree of the first of the summers truffles as well.
These truffles which, in the right hands, have a particularly distinctive flavour, appeared again on top of green gnocchi with Savoy cabbage alongside a most particular rabbit dish which our cheerful waitress justifiably recommended. The rabbit had been boned and, before rolling, stuffed with diced potatoes and herbs and then roasted before being sliced and served with a simple solitary bay leaf. It was delicious. Both del Leone and Daniela have good wine lists.
Finally, following a tip off from an Italian journalist we stopped off at Quattro Gigli (The Four Lilies), an hotel, restaurant and wine shop, in Motópoli 30 kilometres to the east of Pisa airport, which has been in the Puccioni family since 1930.
In between walking past two elderly women watching TV in the lobby, sitting next to an Italian discussing shipping engineering equipment with a Pakistani businessman to Islamabad and the sight of two young Japanese chefs working under the supervision of an Italian mama in the kitchen came some very authentic Tuscan food. Generous antipasti; excellent, pici, short spaghetti with black squid ink; and because we were close to the coast some delicious fritto misto with the renowned cipolle onions from Certaldo.
Quattro Gigli also boasts an extensive and inexpensively priced wine list and an attractive terrace lined by lemon trees. A generous meal for two costs about 100 euros with wine in all three of these establishments.
Osteria del Leone, Via del Mulini 3, Bagno Vignoni. Tel: 0577-887300. Closed Monday
Ristorante Daniela, Piazza Matteotti 6, San Casciano dei Bagni, 0578-58041, www.settequerce.it
Il Pellicano, Porto Ecole. Monte Argentario, www.ilpellicano.it.
This chic hotel has a second, less expensive restaurant and now welcomes non-residents.
Villa Bordoni, Greve in Chianti, www.villabordoni.com A ten room hotel with wonderful views, good food and wine ideally placed as a base for exploring the surrounding wine country.
Quattro Gigli, Montopoli Val dArno, 0571-466878, www.quattrogigli.it