Eating Tuscany: A Tuscany Food and Wine Tour
“Such a beautiful young lady!” exclaimed Mara as she greeted my wife and I.
“Where’s my husband, Terenzio? He’s my translator. My English is not so good.”
I looked around the Tuscan kitchen with its brick archways, stone counters, and copper pots and thought, “This is what I came for.”
Many of the other culinary programs we researched taught in restaurant kitchens. So much of my life is spent eating rushed meals in restaurants that I wanted a vacation away from that life. A vacation to slow down and taste authenticity. I wanted a vacation in La Dolce Vita and could tell that Mara would be the perfect instructor.
We had met Terenzio earlier in the afternoon when he picked us up at the train station for our weeklong Tuscany food and wine tour. “Are you our cooking instructor?” I asked as we puttered along in his Prius through the Tuscan hills to Relais Ortaglio, his agriturismo on the outskirts of Montepulciano.
He let out a hearty laugh and said, “I pour the wine.”
And pour the wine he did. Moments after Mara presented the menu, Terenzio entered the kitchen with a smile and a bottomless bottle of Prosecco. The menu for our first cooking lesson consisted of Pappa al Pomodoro, Scaloppini con Lemon, and Cold Salami for dessert.
>>> Book a hotel in Tuscany <<<
Bubbly in hand, we began preparing the ingredients.
Mara reminded me of my Italian great aunt as she assigned me the spices. I was to chop the parsley fine and place it in water to enhance its flavor for the lemon sauce. Some of the basil was to be delicately torn as a garnish for the Pappa al Pomodoro while the remaining leaves were left whole as a cooking ingredient.
After the spices were diced, chopped, and torn, I mashed vine-ripened tomatoes while my wife mixed chocolate, eggs, Sambuca, and broken cookies for the dessert. She formed the mixture into a log, wrapped it in tinfoil, and placed the Cold Salami in the freezer. Mara then shooed us out of the kitchen while she converted it into the family dining room, but not without a glass of Prosecco to go.
We watched the sun set over the surrounding vineyards from the patio, anticipating the food of our labor.
During dinner, Terenzio explained the wines – a Russo and a Nobile from his vineyard.
Both wines were of the same varietal and blend, consisting primarily of Sangiovese grapes. The similarities ended there, though. The Russo was younger, aged up to a year. It paired well with the Pappa al Pomodoro, which commanded a lighter, fruitier wine. The Nobile, aged between one to two years, was darker and heavier on the palate. I could taste more of the terrain, adding a rustic quality to the wine. It was a welcome contrast to the bright, herbal chicken.
With dessert, Terenzio broke out two homemade grappas – one made from grapes and another from plums. We drank well into the night, savoring the sweet notes of the Italian moonshine and the honor bestowed upon us to share in this digestif with our host.
The rest of the week, Terenzio led us on a full immersion into the Tuscan culture, doubling as both our wine-pourer and tour guide.
Our Tuscany food and wine tour ascended to the village of Radicofani where Ghino di Tacco, the Italian Robin Hood, once dwelled. Here we experienced our feast of all feasts far from the hustle of the tourist trail in a family-owned establishment built into the hillside caves.
The courses, and the wine, never seemed to stop. The antipasto was an assortment of deep fried vegetables fresh from the farmers’ market. The primo was every pasta on the menu – ravioli with truffles, lasagna with a thick cheese sauce, pasta with a wild boar ragu. Each bite was better than the previous. Each dish, carefully crafted to layer on a new level of flavor.
The secondo completed the meal with rabbit cacciatore. The gaminess of the meat roasted with the root vegetables made this plate a true hunter’s dish. Between the wine and the food, we had no room for dessert.
The trip continued with visits to other Tuscan towns, villages, and famed trattorias. We visited the town of Pienza where we toured a church ready to fall off the cliff. San Quirico d’Orcia, a 12th century village where we entered a gothic cathedral and lost ourselves in the spookiness of times past. Lake Trasimeno, where we dined on an elegant seafood pasta (the Calamarata noodles were shaped like calamari) and walked the walls of the ancient fortress that a pope’s nephew built to defend the town against hill tribes.
Then there was Montepulciano, where we truly fell in love with Tuscany. From its sundrenched views of the countryside to its winding lanes and endless wine caves, we ambled for hours, getting lost in the village’s streets, alleyways, and stairways. Stopping in at cheese shops for samples. Savoring a mid-morning snack of gelato. Sipping a cappuccino for a quick pick-me-up. Chasing any sign that read “free wine tasting” (especially if it teased of a tour within the caves).
“No, no, no, like this,” Terenzio corrected me. “You went to college, right? Roll it like a joint.”
It was our final cooking class of our Tuscany food and wine tour, and I was struggling to roll my portion of picci, Tuscany’s traditional handmade pasta. Another couple joined us for the class, and together we prepared Picci with Garlic Sauce and Scottiglia, a combination of mixed meats.
Over the course of a few hours, we kneaded, rolled, and divided the dough. Then we cut the mounds into strips and rolled them into thick, long noodles. The trick was to lightly roll and finesse the noodles instead of forcing the shape – like rolling a joint. It was a group effort between the students, instructors, and staff from Relais Ortaglio.
All the while, the meat simmered in a tomato sauce – rabbit, chicken, veal, beef, turkey, and lamb. The dish, much like life in Italy, was meant to be enjoyed with the company of others. Together, we lingered over each course, each bite, each sip of wine – piling on seconds and acting like the calorie counter didn’t exist in Tuscany.
At least my wife and I did. The other couple was having a harder time adjusting to La Dolce Vita. They finished each course before the rest of us, pushing their plate away when asked for seconds and covering their glasses when offered more wine. They had an early rise the next day to continue their morning jogging ritual before heading off to the next stop on their Tuscan checklist.
>>> Book a hotel in Tuscany <<<
I guess some habits of the frantic American lifestyle are too difficult to leave behind, even if for a day or a week.
I try not to judge as I find it difficult to put the smart phone down and be with those around me. But what’s the point of visiting Tuscany and taking a lesson in slow cooking if you can’t try living the slow life? Of spending hours hand-rolling noodles only to race through dinner, knowing the morning wake-up call is looming in the distance?
While they scurried off to bed, Terenzio broke out the grappa, and we had a replay of the first night. We raised our glasses and toasted to La Dolce Vita, the sweet life, well into the night.
Who else would love to go on a Tuscany food and wine tour? Comment below!
Our tour Tuscany food and wine tour, Romance in the Vineyard, was booked through Cooking Vacations. Check out their site for more culinary excursions to Italy.