'A welcome change in a climate of clichés'

(Review by Kate Singleton of Catching Fireflies, the early version of Chianti on the Rocks)

Tuscanography is an established literary genre. The narrative usually revolves around buying and restoring a ruined farmhouse somewhere near Siena, thereby getting to know the locals who are charming rustic sages or unscrupulous Latin cheats. The ensuing picture of Tuscany tends to be simplistic, idealistic or downright meretricious.

 Tony Rocca’s “Catching Fireflies” is a welcome change in a climate of clichés. He does actually write about purchasing a dilapidated property, and he also describes the individuals thus encountered. He even devotes pages to the wonders of the landscape. Yet there is nothing trite in his tale. 

 Instead, he relates his experience with humor and discernment, mapping the course of a learning curve beset with daunting vicissitudes. The resultant picture rings true because it mirrors both the region and the author as they undergo change.

 It is this element of change that sets Tony Rocca’s story apart and gives it a certain healthy dynamism. Many others writing about Tuscany have emphasized the perceived timelessness of the region’s way of life, its vine-clad hillsides and gastronomy. By contrast, Rocca appreciates that such things are not items in a museum showcase. Like the humans who interact with them, they must evolve and adapt, or fossilize and become lifeless.

 In the late 1980s, Rocca, a London journalist, and his wife, Mira, decided to exchange grayness for color and sunshine by purchasing a large “wreck of a property” near Castellina in Chianti. Despite the name, Rocca was very much an Englishman and spoke no Italian. Since he and Mira were both still in their mid-40s, their “quest was a little more complex than simply looking for a new home. We hoped we could find a business venture to build up and enjoy together.”

 This was Collelungo, the house they bought with the idea of providing holiday accommodation for the increasing numbers of Tuscophiles who flocked from abroad to bask in the Tuscan sun. What the neo-entrepreneurs never anticipated was the arcane complexity of a mortgage in Italy.

 Strikingly, the author names and shames, to the delight of any reader who has had any dealings with the same bank. One of Italy’s largest, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena – henceforth aptly referred to as the Montegraspers – kept the Roccas in a state of acute financial inquietude for years. The experience must have been torture, but it is recounted with wit and a delightfully wicked flourish.

 Meanwhile restoration got under way, with plenty of hiccups – many of them induced by Mafalda, the noxious local busybody whose final comeuppance is a joy to read. To save money, Tony and Mira slept in the only part of the house that still had a roof: “It was a parody of the Tuscan dream with rubble everywhere, rain coming in through the roof and nowhere immune to cold draughts.”

 By proving their adaptability in a thousand ways, the erstwhile Londoners soon got to know their builders well, and through them other members of the local community. This culminated in making the acquaintance of the family who had lived at Collelungo as sharecrop farmers until a few years before the house was sold.  Enter Dina Migiorini, age 74, and 13 of her extended-family members who return to the house for a celebratory lunch.

 Tony Rocca has the sensitivity to let this elderly countrywoman speak for herself. It is an eloquent way of pointing out that even a few decades ago life in the Tuscan countryside was no rural idyll. When he asks the Migliorinis to identify the ancient farm implements found on the property and casually hung on the wall he realizes that his request is somehow tactless: “For us city folk from far away they were talking points, a bit of fun, museum pieces; for the Migliorinis they were reminders of back-breaking work in all weather, from the crack of dawn to dusk.”

 “Would I like my old life back?” asks Dina. “I would not!”

 Not convinced that their rental accommodations could assure the necessary income to keep the “Montegraspers” at bay, the Roccas turned to tending the extensive vineyards that came with the property. Rather than selling the grapes to the local cooperative winery, they chose to create a quality wine of their own. With support from the local Farmers’ Confederation and the help of a young agronomist and a winemaker, within the space of a few years the Collelungo Chianti Classico met with international acclaim.

 Any owner of a wine estate that has Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and Decanter magazine among its admirers would be pardoned for a touch of self-satisfaction. Not Tony Rocca. Instead he tells marvelous stories of near disasters. 

 One of these involved waiting on the main road for the arrival of the haulage truck that would take their boxed wine to its distant markets. There was some delay, and Tony sat for three hours on the mountain of white boxes. “In that time I think everyone we knew in Chianti must have passed by, waving and no doubt thinking ‘Poor old Tony and Mira; they’re having to flog their plonk by the roadside in order to survive.’”

 Tony Rocca is self-effacing as well as amusing. He is also perceptive and objective. It is these qualities that make his book so enjoyable.


Kate Singleton, who lives in Italy, is the author of “Wines of Sicily” (McRae Books).



"You are bound to sit up and take notice" 
Decanter magazine

'Englishman buys abandoned farm in Chianti': not exactly a stop-press headline. After all, foreigners have been buying up property in Tuscany ever since those who had to try to make a living from the land left in droves during the late 1960s and early 1970s. And many of the new residents have been tempted to have a bash at winemaking.

Read 'Foreign owner breaks 90-point barrier in Parker with first vintage', however, and you're bound to sit up and take notice. It is remarkable to see how many of the buzz wines of the moment in Chianti are made on estates owned by non-Italians. And it is even more remarkable how quickly many of the latest generation of immigrés-owners have made it to the top. Perhaps most remarkable of all, though, is that many of today's high flyers arrived in Tuscany with no intention of making wine.

Tony was a London-based journalist, while his wife, Mira, worked in the travel business and both were keen to leave their high-pressure jobs. By his own confession at that time Tony knew barely enough about wine to find his way around his local off-licence, so it was obvious they would need expert help. They plunged into the experience of hands-on winemaking, with results that they could never have imagined. The wines have sold out on the back of enthusiastic personal recommendations and great reviews.

- From an article by Richard Baudains
"They found their future hidden in a ruin"
London Daily Express
It all seemed impossibly romantic - and for all that, also frightening if the place was ever to be made habitable again. They decided to take on the challenge and that meant facing a formidable battle with the complexities of Italian building and planning laws. These were like trying to unravel a tub of tangled spaghetti and involved having to deal with a wedge of different officials, various layers of government, a battalion of lawyers, teams of architects, and a small troop of accountants. Everything took time  because in Italy, bureaucracy moves slowly, stops for lunch, has a siesta, probably meets its mistress in the afternoon, and has a quill pen rather than computerised outlook on business life. But, despite various problems that would have defeated less determined couples (and even signing a declaration that he had nothing to do with the Mafia), they managed to raise a second loan and finish the work. The result is a living testimony to the grit and iron optimism of a couple who wanted to create their own paradise. And did.

- From an article by Paul Callan
"The Grape Escape" 
 – London Daily Mail (headline)

So what induced the couple to abandon financial security and their comfortable lives in London and take on such an awesomely challenging project? The germ of the idea has its origin in Tony's Anglo-Italian roots (though he embarked on the project with neither of them speaking any Italian). His great-grandfather, Louis Rocca, had migrated from rural Italy to Manchester during Queen Victoria's reign, and set himself up as a manufacturer of ice-cream. More than a century later Tony was to make the journey in reverse: there was a pleasing symmetry in the return to his forebears' homeland.

'There was a passion in Italy that was missing from our grey lives in rainy England.' says Tony, 'where conversation increasingly turned to company cars and expense-account dining. We went on holiday to Chianti and helped with a grape harvest. That impelled us forward.

'I couldn't say exactly what made us decide to give up everything and go for it. It might have been the combination of robust, rustic food, stories told around the dining table after a hard day's work and the copious amounts of Chianti we drank. Or it might just have been the deep sense of contentment we felt.'

So it was that Tony and Mira found themselves outside the crumbling ruin that was to become the focus of their new lives. The task was monumental; the risk enormous. But Tony and Mira pressed on, with dazzling success.

- From an interview with the author by Frances Hardy
"Tuscany the hard way" 
London Sunday Times (headline)
[...] Very soon after receiving the mortgage offer of a billion lire - half a million pounds! - we found ourselves facing usurious interest rates of 23% on a bridging loan we'd taken to kick-start the project. There were other forebodings: the challenge of a foreign place we didn't know and a language that wasn't part of my inheritance. The tensions of purchase and restoration on a very tight budget. The hidden dangers. The worry of city dwellers facing country life.

We hadn't bargained for the first Gulf war, which shattered business confidence and the property market and sank Italy into recession. Nor could we have foreseen the corruption scandals that rocked the country, coming very close to home when two of the directors of our bank were arrested and accused of taking kickbacks for loans. In the Clean Hands anti-corruption campaign that swept the land more than 2,500 people were investigated and I had to swear under oath that I did not belong to the Mafia. We also faced dealing with a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

Then the bank pulled out, without warning or explanation. We were left penniless, all savings spent and with an escalating debt on the bridging loan. Everything ground to a halt and the only thing moving quickly was the few remaining lire disappearing from our account.

We shivered through seven winters, living in a ruin at an altitude of 1,700ft with no heat, no hot water, holes in the floor, and cold and damp penetrating the metre-thick walls. At least we had electricity, although sparks flew alarmingly from a big porcelain switch when it rained.

Our free fall was arrested by the kindness and generosity of local people who befriended us and gradually rekindled our passion for the goal of living in a sun-blessed land with good food, good wine and good company.
- From an article by the author

 HOME               BACK to