Tuscany. La Toscana. Die Toskana. La Toscane. In any language, words to conjure with, to make a bevy of well-worn notions flutter brightly up at you from the printed page: beautiful; fascinating; captivating; breath-taking; unforgettable. Golden silver green yellow ochre blue. The sea, the beach, mountains of solid white marble. Timeless, ageless, broody, reserved. Cradle of the Renaissance, fine old art wherever you look, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Giotto, you name it. Ancient walled and towered cities, Etruscan tombs, Roman theatres. And a great deal more in that vein. And then, when all that's been said, hovering over everything, toscanissimo, universal, known to the whole world as both symbols and sweet earthy realities: red wines and white, rolling hills and dales of sun-drenched vineyards pregnant with rich ripe grapes, and silvery shimmering olive groves whispering to Mediterranean zephyrs. That is the True Gourmet's, the knowing Lifewoman's and her Lifeman's Tuscany, and September, October and most of November is Golden Seize-It Time, carpe diem, carpe mensem, for a quick jolly jaunt to this, the one and only true terrestrial Paradise. Oh yes it is. Just ask any Tuscan. Golden 2004: noble wines, podgy olivesBy all accounts, 2004 will be an exceptional, a memorable, a precious vintage. Conditions have been ideal: exactly the right amount of sun, warmth, heat, rain Bacchus must have struck bargains with Apollo, Aeolus and Jupiter Pluvius so they'd let him get it right this time, wouldn't plague him with any of the childish pranks they love to play . . . scorching heat, parched drought, torrential rains, voracious bugs, smash-all-to-pulp hailstorms in August, devastating winds. As of the day of this writing, 16th September, the vendemmia, grape harvest, of white Chardonnay grapes either is under way or will be in a few days, depending on local conditions. By the middle of October the San Giovese and other Tuscan reds will be in the vats. This is the most rewarding time for visiting some of the noble wineries and learning some fundamentals of the ancient, honourable and arcane Arts of the Grape. Your guide will explain what is happening in those cavernous vaulted cellars crammed with great oaken vats (sometimes now, alas, of stainless steel and fibreglass) tended by craftsmen whose skills have bee handed down through twenty generations. There is no better time of the year for that than now. Olives, too, have been enjoying three propitious seasons. The oil meaning of course only the pure cold-pressed Extra Virgin variety, and even if you live in Tuscany you have to know where to go to find the best of it will be fruity, tasty, long-lived, low in nearly everything that's bad for your heart and expanding waistline, rich in nearly everything that makes the Mediterranean diet the most salubrious in the West. By the end of October the harvest will be in the mills and presses and the crushing, filtering and bottling will begin. Here too youeuroll find a pleasurable lesson to take in, intellectually and literally, gastronomically: you may not know what 'delicious' means until you've sampled a fettunta . . . a slice of unsalted Tuscan white bread toasted at the fire to a light brown (faut de feu, an electric toaster is, reluctantly, permissible), rubbed with fresh garlic, abundantly moistened with fresh eurobitingeuro oil and lightly salted . . . . Chianti Classico and BrunelloTuscany abounds with ancient walled and fortified hilltop towns some are internationally famous and all are worth visiting. Much of the land around them produces wines of different sorts, all good and many excellent, and not a few with world-class reputations. Well organised and highly entertaining study sessions for individuals and groups in which famous wine experts teach the basics of recognition and appreciation of wine values are available. Two D.O.C. denominations dominate: Chianti (kin-tee), a region still closely within its mediaeval borders; and Brunello, confined to a very small area, less than a hundred square kilometres. The hub of the Gallo Nero or euroBlack Cockereleuro Chianti is Greve (greh-veh), about halfway between Florence and Siena, whilst that of Brunello is Montalcino (Mont-al-chee-noh), some forty kilometres due south of Siena. Greve, the Abbey of Passignano and Montalcino By Tuscan standards, Greve is not very old as an inhabited town, nor was it ever more than the site of an annual market fair the arched arcades all around the triangular piazza date only to Napoleonic times, 1801-07. Yet even before 1350 the quality of the best wines produced by the surrounding castle-estates had drawn the praise of serious connoisseurs in palaces as far away as Florence, Pisa, Venice and the exiled papal court in Avignon. Greve boasts of a native son who could have changed world history profoundly but didneurot: Giovanni da Verrazzano, the discoverer, whilst sailing under the lily flag of Franois I of France in 1524, of the bay of what was to become Nieuw Amsterdam a century later and New York in 1664. He sailed up the Hudson for about half the length of Manhattan . . . and left without staking a claim for France, to the kingeuros subsequent understandable ire. You may admire Messer Giovannieuros colourful effigy in bronze erected in 1913 in the middle of the piazza. New York commemorates him with the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that has been connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island since 1963.Tradition says that in the fall of 1333 the hotly disputed border of the Chianti between the warring Republics of Florence and Siena was to be determined in a serious, statesman-like manner. At the cockeuros first crow, witnessed by a bishop, a Florentine knight was to set out from Florence and a Sienese one from Siena, and these were to ride towards each other as fast as they might over fifty-odd arduous miles of mountain and valley. Their meeting point would mark the border forever. The evening before the event the crafty Sienese fed their bird very little so that, hungry, he would crow at the very first, faint paling of night, and off would go their man; and so it happened. But the craftier Florentines fed nothing at all to theirs, a magnificent jet-black chanticleer, a champion of champions famous for his imperious demeanour and crotchety temper, so that he would raise an infernal ruckus long before any hint of day; and so he did. With that head-start the Florentine met his counterpart two thirds of the way toward Siena, far beyond Greve, and that is why Greve is in the province of Florence to this day and not in that of Siena. Hmm. Yes. Well. But now you understand the Gallo Nero symbol. Fifteen minutes by car over bumpy unpaved roads will take you from Greve to the Badia di Passignano (bah-dee-yah dee pah-see-nih-noh, the nia as in onion). A badia is an abbey, Passignano a place. A monastery dedicated to the arch-angel St. Michael in the year 890, it was enlarged in succeeding centuries into the usual monastic fortress, walled and well-armed against the incessant wars, sieges and pillages and also as a base for the euromonkseuro setting out on some profitable wars, sieges and pillages of their own. Now an active Benedictine monastery, it is closed to visitors but memorable from the outside. The vast vineyards surrounding it have belonged to the Antinori family for six centuries.Although never one of the really powerful commercial and military centres of mediaeval Tuscany, Montalcino (mon-tal-chee-no), perched on its promontory at nearly six hundred metres above sea level, has a history much like that of some forty similar hill towns in which civilised life and the arts flourished for five and more centuries, from about A.D. 900 to 1600. It has long been famous for what many connoisseurs consider the finest of all Italian wines: the red Brunello, grown and produced only here. There are three or four outlets in town where one can sample the various vintages. Quite unforgettable forty-mile views all around may be enjoyed from the upper end of town, at the church at the end of the promontory. Three museums offer painting and sculpture of six centuries, and often special exhibits of arts and crafts.About six kilometres to the south lies the cathedral of SanteuroAntimo. This stunning eleventh-century edifice stands alone in a wide meadow, like a great whale in a calm sea. Its walls and columns are in part made of blocks of translucent alabaster, and here and there bright sunlight passes through them to become perceptible on the inside as a lighter area in the stone surface. A custodian will usually demonstrate how a strong electric light passes through a nearly metre-thick alabaster column. The romanesque architecture is impressive. Mouth-watering foods to wash down with those lovely winesTuscany is known as a gourmeteuros Mecca, and yet few visitors, while they agree enthusiastically, really understand what makes it so. Contrary to the very often excellent but usually complicated cuisines of other nations and other Italian regions, Tuscanyeuros tried, true and ancient table crafts hold faith with three inviolable principles: freschezza, semplicit, prontezza freshness, simplicity, swiftness in the preparation. If this sounds banal, reflect. In spite of the encroachments of industrial frozen and tinned foods in Tuscany as everywhere, most housewives and all professional cooks still go to the many open-air markets to buy fruits and vegetables then in season. There is a universe of difference between a tree-ripened peach and a green one left to ripen in the refrigerator lorry, between spinach, artichokes and cauliflowers picked that morning and those trucked in from Spain or flown from Egypt. Fresh local oil, fresh local greens, tangy spices of all sorts picked from the garden minutes before use, the dish itself done swiftly to seal flavours and juices in and served hot, followed by local sun-warmed figs or melons and locally-made, locally-aged cheeses such eurosecretseuro, once universally known and practised, have largely gone overboard and been forgotten in todayeuros life rhythms. But they remain the keystones of most of Tuscan cooking. Cooking courses conducted by excellent chefs can be readily booked, for a just dayeuros lesson or a longer, more demanding programme. Just now many fall and winter vegetables are appearing in the markets, among them cavolo nero, black cabbage, the main ingredient of ribollita, a savoury Tuscan peasants' vegetable soup. Cheeses that were put away to age in spring are coming out on the shepherdseuro wooden counters. Fresh fruit is everywhere. Aside from the traditional fare served in many smaller trattorie, Tuscany boasts of three among Europe's most distinguished restaurants: viz., the Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, Il Gambero Rosso in San Vincenzo, and La Tenda Rossa in Cerbaia. Pleasures in Chianti streets and bywaysThroughout September and October the market squares of Greve and nearby Impruneta, and the narrow streets of neighouring Panzano, will offer parades of wagons bearing allegorical figures, and much impromptu theatre, music and dance, not to forget samplings of wines, extra-virgin olive oils and regional salamis among these last, the famous products of Greve's two four-generations-old butcher shops, Falorni and Cecchini, whose pork products are made from the flesh of the curious cinta senese breed, small brown pigs with a broad white band running vertically around their middles . . . you can see them in twelfth- and thirteenth-century paintings. Up in old Certaldo Alto renowned chefs will 'fight duels' in public cooking lessons and artisans will demonstrate their skills.So: go. Go now, seeker of savour for your jaded supermarket palate and of colour your tired computer-blurry eye. Simple but comfortable inexpensive accommodations are available, as are sumptuous five-star hotels in villas and castles. Tours, various activities and exclusive food and wine holidays can be booked through Le Baccanti Tours, www.lebaccanti.com. Your correspondent has had very good experiences with this alert young firm.