If you want a week of sheer relaxation, fun and great company, you need to find a farm in central Italy which grows olives, grapes, chooks and pigs and as well, makes olive oil, wine, pasta and prosciutto. Into the mix, add a very capable and vivacious Isabella who like to cook and teach, a very cool farmer and his dad who both love the land they are from and work it tirelessly regardless of the financial returns (or lack thereof). All of this is set in a 14th century stone villa a few kilometres from the magnificent hill town of Pienza in the Tuscan district of Val d’Orcia (pron:“Val Dorcha”). Postcard images of Tuscany that you may have in your head will most likely have been taken in the Val d’Orcia.
Sharing a huge three bedroom villa with a young American couple, we had a dead-set authentic Tuscan living space with terracotta floors, white washed walls and shuttered windows in 18 inch deep window reveals. The well worn stone sink had three taps, the third being spring water reticulated direct from the mountain. It made great coffee – espresso of course. It was a sunny 18 during the day and cool at night just enough to warrant an open fire in front of which Jen would curl up and read while I sorted and culled photos from the day.
The best Italian food is often the simplest – crusty Italian bread with olive oil and salt, for one. They NEVER put balsamic vinegar with oil or with bread – only over salads. Caprese salad – pomodoro with buffalo mozzarella drenched in olive oil (plus/minus basil); and of course pasta with whatever sauce you desire. Note: never put oil in the salted water because it makes the pasta slippery resulting in the sauce sliding off the pasta when served. You want the sauce to stick to the pasta. They did struggle a bit with the concept of eating food without wine, but we taught them how to do it.
Pici (pron: peachey) is the variant of pasta unique to the Val d’Orcia and close neighbours. It is different in that eggs are added to the usual flour and water mix and is hand rolled a bit like we did plasticine (play-doh) as kids. The trick is to get the whole length an even 4mm thick. If we got it wrong, Isa would unceremoniously pick it up and dump it back into the pile of unrolled dough to be done again. She wasn’t going to let any foreigners go home without the correct method being learned. Local traditions and methodologies are everything. For me, if I am going to bother learning something, I want to learn to do it correctly so I didn’t mind at all.
Dinner one night was at Sant’Anna in Camprena the Benedictine monastery where the “The English Patient” was filmed. The monastery was deconsecrated after the release of the film because it was the most boring film ever made, however the location was fabulous.
We walked into town through wheat fields, past the chapel pictured below on a gorgeous sunny day with poppies and wildflowers all over. It was the last day of the flower festival and everything was floral – even the food. Isabella and her friends had a stall where they sold tempura flowers in brown paper cones for €3 each. Mmm very tasty indeed.
We made bread at Sandra’s organic farm. Old kitchen bench, mounds of flour and wood burning pizza oven. Yep, the bottom of each loaf came out greyish from the ash and all. Sandra’s husband Ulysse (Swiss) was out making goat and sheep’s cheese, so later when we all had lunch together, he brought out a ton of fresh ricotta he had made from the left over whey. What a treat. Jen’s loaf was a cracker and went really well with the aged pecorino they served up!
The family owns a property on which there is a cave-like dwelling. Its earliest part is an Etruscan tomb (300-200 BC). Later, pagans left carvings on the walls and even later was used as a hermitage by separatist monks (hermits) who voluntarily lived a life of hardship, prayer and deprivation. Rooms and reliefs from each of these three groups are in amazingly good condition and await proper archaeological excavation as soon as the family can come up with a few lazy million Euros funding.
An incredibly interesting week.
See more at http://www.cretaiole.it/index.en.php