Under the Tuscan Sun

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


14 Responses to “Under the Tuscan Sun”

  1. 1 Ek
    May 22, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Wow Dad!!!
    What an amazing week! The FOOD! What amazing food… so jealous!
    You know how much I love bread and cheese; bread and olive oil, bread and tomato, bread and anything really. And the tap with spring water! These people really know how to live a rich life. So beautiful.
    And the flower festival! Oh, be still my heart. I think that would have been my highlight so far.
    You are a funny writer, I had to laugh out loud when you mentioned the English Patient. That was one of my core texts for year 11… I tried to sit through it, I really TRIED. I think I attempted about 6 times. I never got to the end (don’t tell mum!) I always felt like sticking sharp implements in my eyes.
    I got all teary seeing your faces in these photos!! You look SO rediculously happy. I’m soooo happy you are having this holiday together, it is so important for you to do this, I can see the contentmentyou have with life seeping out of your pores.
    Love you both, missing you now. Wish we could have a cuppa

  2. 2 Lee
    May 22, 2010 at 7:58 am

    I have a big smile on my face reading this one.
    A) because there are some really nice photos of you two here looking like you are really happy and having a great time and B) because this is EXACTLY where you wanted to be and you are finally there doing it! Im proud of you for both getting immersed in the culture and really living it. miss you both xxx

  3. 3 Mark
    May 22, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Hi Mate, great post! very jealous of you guyzors, photos look amazing, The food sounds yum. Miss you both lots, but don’t feel bad 😀 x

  4. 4 Gerald & Helene
    May 22, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Very envious of you Nick & Jen! Your stories are most enjoyable to read & make us feel we are there. Keep having a great time. Gerald & Helene.

  5. 5 Julie
    May 22, 2010 at 10:06 am

    sounds idyllic…love it.

  6. 6 Ofelia
    May 22, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Hi Nick and Jen..
    Reading this abaut the food and baking took me back to my pre teen years. Rather a very long time ago when we lived on a farm in Argentina and made all our own pasta and baked our bread.
    The ash on the bottom of the bread…that is exactly how it was.
    We dint have a brick oven like the one Jen is standing in front of. Ours was made out of mud bricks and rendered in mud. No door. Just a galvanised sheet big enough to cover the opening. We baked bread and sweet treats and cooked lunch on the day the baking was taking place. Usually on a friday.Memories…
    Fascinating reading once again. Made me hungry. But is is past midnight so should go to bed!
    Your photographs are stunning.
    Take care and keep safe. Such an amazing experience. It is so obvious you are both so very happy and relaxed and living your dream.

  7. May 23, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Nick, you are a wonderful writer – am really enjoying reading about all your adventures! Tuscany sounds beautiful, cant wait to visit it myself one day! Keep the posts coming and enjoy every minute of your trip. WE all miss you loads. Janelle xxx

  8. 8 Nina
    May 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Just love reading your blogs, Nicky! Not only brings back many fantastic memories for us but also makes us so,so happy that at last you have realised your dream of travelling with Jen. Enjoy every moment,unfortunately time flies too quickly, so absorb in mind and photogtaphs.
    Your photos are fantastic, I don’t lnow why I bother taking any when I see yours. XX

  9. 9 Bruce Evans
    May 24, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Hi guys, not sure if you really care but our weekend was wet and miserable, nothing like yours. We are really enjoying your photos and travel talks. As other comments have said you are living the dream. Continue my friends to live it. Looking forward to the next fantasic feature. And we miss you both to.

  10. 10 Ray and Frances
    May 27, 2010 at 7:56 am

    How wonderful to have all these experiences together.
    Love you writing as it is so descriptive and interesting.
    Good to see that you are now “In the dough” after your bread making experiences.
    Great to see you both so happy and love sparkelling in you eyes.
    Travelling together can be a good fuel to keep the fires of love alight.

    Travel on and on!!

  11. July 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Hi Nick,
    I really enjoyed reading many things in this blog post – the pasta making, the general ambience, but in particular your comment about “The English Patient” being very boring – I couldn’t agree more.

    Your photos are beautiful and capture the essence of your story.

    I’m looking forward to reading the others.

  12. 12 Jill Britt
    July 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Cretaiole. Beautiful photography, great reading, great blog, looking forward to reading more!

  13. December 31, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Hi sir Im from indonesia, your photography is very good. that’s amazing..some time, come and visit indonesia. Thanks and Iam very like your galery picture

  14. March 2, 2011 at 12:33 am

    Hi Nick
    Fantastico, Nick! These are the most gorgeous pics I’ve laid eyes on for many a day, especially the first one. They’ve whetted my appetite for Tuscany. As you know I’ll be traveling there at the end of this year.

    I am very interested in Agriturismo Cretaiole, and shall look into it further.

    Let’s keep in touch.

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May 2010

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