VILLA A SESTA, ITALY — The rolling Tuscan hills are full of them — small Chianti wine towns lost in time, their existence known only because their ancient bell towers jut out of the vine-filled valleys like pins on a map. One of them is Villa a Sesta, a sleepy little 9th-century village of just 77 inhabitants just outside fairytale Siena. To get to Villa a Sesta I travel a back road boarded by vineyards, olive trees and sunflower-filled fields. What a visual delight!
The town’s narrow streets and crumpled sandstone buildings that blush red at sunset are typical of this region. In fact, the only thing that distinguishes Villa a Sesta from its neighbours is a small building off the main square that tilts a bit to the right.
“That’s it,” exclaims Alexandra, my taxi driver. “That’s where you’ll be eating tonight.”
Funny, but this does not look like the Michelin star restaurant I was expecting.
Undeterred, I follow a line of ancient glass wine jars to the entrance of Bottega del 30 (trenta), the one-star Michelin property owned by Chef Hélène Stoquelet, a legendary figure in this area.
“Are you the one from Castel Monastero (the nearby spa resort where I’m staying)?” asks Hélène, who's guarding the restaurant's doorway in a stained chef’s coat.
The floor creaks and squeaks under my feet as I enter the small but cozy low-beamed room that has about a dozen wooden tables. The stone walls are lined with family photos, amateur paintings and lots of culinary kitsch — a collection of ancient corkscrews draws the most attention.
The mid-week crowd is small. At one table, an Italian couple is engaged in a heated argument. A Canadian family of four sitting nearby asks the young sommelier to recommend a good bottle of Chianti. Next to me sits a group of middle-aged American women living out their Under The Tuscan Sun bucket list dream.
Hélène arrives back carrying a menu but never hands it to me. Instead, she suggests the chef’s menu she has created for the evening would suit my taste buds to a tee. She’s obviously made the same pitch to the others because everyone is having identical meals.
“Tonight I have created a menu of cod fish balls, followed by eggplant carpaccio (yum, my favourite) and finally wild boar (a Tuscan tradition),” says the transplanted Parisian, who opened the restaurant with the odd name with her husband Franco Camelia 35 years ago.
The sommelier uncorks a lovely bottle of Chianti from a local vineyard for me and a few minutes later a server arrives with my amuse bouche, a creamy pumpkin soup with a foamy crown that Hélène has created for the fall season.
While I wait for the cod, Hélène explains the origins of the restaurant’s name.
“We bought the shop from a salesman who would go to the surrounding villages every 30 days to sell his wares,” begins Hélène, who arrived in nearby Siena on vacation, fell in love with the local playboy, Franco, got married and never left.
“The people of Villa a Sesta always referred to this building as Bottega del 30 because of the salesman’s travels every 30 days so we just kept the name when we turned it into the restaurant.”
Hélène’s eyes well up every time she mentions Franco.
“He suffered a stoke recently and he can no longer be with me in the restaurant. I miss working with him so much, because the foundations of this restaurant were built on our love story. He can no longer speak and he had such a beautiful voice,” says Hélène of Franco, who was a jewellery designer and singer when they first met.
“Franco injected so much personality into the restaurant,” says the women with a smile that would brighten up a dark room.
While I enjoy chef's superb cuisine, Hélène regales me with stories about the town and the characters in it and admits she knew little about cooking when she first arrived from Paris.
“The local nonnas (grandmothers) took a liking to me and taught me the proper way to prepare Tuscan cuisine and that’s what I continue to present to my customers today.”
She remembers “the old woman whose secret to making great beans for the past 50 years is to first wash them in a wicker wine basket — it gives the beans great flavour.
“And there was Lisa, who learned from her ancestors that to reduce the bitter taste of radicchio salad you must first squeeze it like a salami, cut it up finely and then rinse it several times.
Above: Nadia Mongiat brings a new style to the restaurant.
“It’s those small tips that have helped make me the chef I am today,” says Hélène.
Chef’s big break came when a writer for Forbes magazine stopped by unannounced in 1996 and wrote a glowing article about his experience at Bottega del 30.
“The fax machine soon lit up with lots of Americans asking for reservations,” laughs the delightful Hélène.
After that came Michelin’s endorsement and the tourists have not stopped coming since.
“The key to Tuscan cooking is simplicity,” says Hélène, who sources the ingredients that go into her incredible dishes from local markets and farms.
“Bottega’s success is due to the selection of high-quality ingredients, simplicity in putting them together and a bit of art in the presentation on the plate,” says Chef.
Each of Hélène’s creations on this night are an orgasmic taste delight. The sauces, the plating, the wine, the freshness of the ingredients, the service and especially the ambiance are beyond my wildest expectations.
Hélène’s passion for food, her respect for the culinary traditions of her adopted Tuscany and her desire to satisfy the appetites of those who come from far and wide are admirable. But it’s her “love story” that I feast on this night and one that will satisfy me forever.
• For more info on Bottega del 30, go to http://labottegadel30.it/en/