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WE WERE IN A VERY HOT PLACE, underground, and the diabolical figure confronting us was short and squat, bald and muscular. When he laughed, which was often, his entire scalp reddened, including his big ears. The only clues that Lorenzo was a baker rather than the devil himself were his white Crocs and the pinup calendar tacked to the wall.
He flipped open the doors to a massive oven—one of the biggest and oldest in Siena—and a blast of heat hit us in the face. Reaching into its depths with a long wooden paddle, Lorenzo pulled out a baking sheet filled with his family's legendary contucci, golden biscuits made for dunking in vin santo, the fragrant dessert wine. With a big smile, he waved the steaming cookies, fragrant with orange zest and almond, under my nose.
Eight of us had spent a week cycling in Chianti, the famed Tuscan wine region south of Florence. Though we'd ridden some pretty tough climbs (they're not called "Tuscan hill towns" for nothing), and bombed down some sketchy, rutted strade bianche (or "white roads"), tonight was shaping up as our biggest challenge yet. We were trapped in the bowels of Il Panifico Magnifico, a famous Sienese bakery; our exit was blocked, literally, by a table already groaning with contucci plus at least five other types of cookies, including chewy almond moons called ricciarelli, dusted in powdered sugar. In addition, there were at least a dozen still-warm pannetone, fluffy orange cakes each the size of a basketball. We could not simply walk out of this room. We had to eat our way out.
Our bellies were still stuffed from lunch, a two-hour feast that had begun with bruschetta and crostini, run through several platters of prosciutto and melon, and ended with hearty platefuls of lasagne and tagliatelle, all washed down with glasses of Chianti from the winery just up the road from the village where we were staying. Truth be told, we were still full from yesterday's lunch.
We eyed the confections on the table, bleary from gastric fatigue. But it wasn't long before someone sliced into one of the orange cakes—just to be polite, you know. Our host, Joao, filled a plastic cup with vin santo and dunked one of the biscotti into it. Big smile. Others followed his example. I picked up one of the powdered-sugar cookies and bit into it; in my mouth, it melted into a warm, sugary almond goo. Yes, please, I will have five more… Soon we were stuffing cake and cookies into our faces by the fistful, as our livers whirred back into the red zone. The table began to empty. We were all sweating profusely, thanks to the heat from the oven, but we didn't care anymore.
Table somewhat lighter, we said good-bye, then tottered down the street, woozy from glycemic shock. Time for dinner.
They take the seven deadly sins pretty seriously in Tuscany, ever since a local poet wrote a long and vivid account of who goes to hell, and why, and what happens down there.
Dante's Inferno became an all-time medieval best-seller, of course, and in it the Tuscan versifier reserved a special fate for the gluttons: They were forced to lie in the mud beneath a pounding, chilly rain, like the pigs they had emulated in real life. "Large hail, tainted water, and sleet pour down through the shadowy air," Dante wrote, "and the earth is putrid that receives it."
Which had me worried, because the skies had been threatening rain all week, and we were certainly tempting judgment with our gluttonous behavior. So far, we'd escaped with just a light dousing one morning, as we flew down the road from the hilltop town where we were staying. But by the time we reached the main road, the rain had stopped.