Agriturismo in Tuscany

Published November 24th 2015
“There is no technique; there is just the way to do it.
Now, are we going to measure or are we going to cook?”
 ― Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun

What Agriturismo Has Done for Tuscany
ulinary Tourism that Connects on All Levels
By Linda Kavanagh
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Whether it is romanticized in the pages of a book or visualized on the big screen, there’s no denying one’s desire to eat drink, love and live – and do it all well. In the United States this is something we strive to achieve. In Italy, it is simply a way of life. My travels throughout this picturesque and delicious country over the years have spoiled me to the point of no return. Though,  I do return home to my Metro-New York suburb, a piece of Italy, its cuisine and connection to the land’s bounty, and its love and appreciation for family and the time we have to enjoy all of life’s great (and simple) pleasures, I am forever effected by the raw and innate way life is enjoyed in the Italian culture. As depicted in author Frances Mayes’ memoir Under The Tuscan Sun, and actress Diane Lane’s embellished portrayal of the author’s self-revealing years she spent in Cortona Tuscany upon buying and refurbishing an old villa, the notion of following one’s dream and leading such a fulfilling life is palpable.
My recent trip to Italy with my food and wine enthusiast friends took us to Italian Food Artisan and renowned cookbook author Pamela Sheldon John’s “Poggio Etrusco”, her charming agriturismo farmhouse which was constructed in the late 1600s. The now multi-villa retreat sits atop a five-hectare (over 12 acres) working olive farm and Sangiovese wine grove and is home to Pamela’s culinary workshops and guided tours throughout Tuscany, coastal destinations and historic cities in Italy.
Pamela is an active, as well as a crusading participant in the travel phenomenon developed in the Italian Countryside referred to as “Agriturismo”. The preservation of deep rooted farms, particularly throughout Tuscany, are made possible through funding from the government, organic agriculture practices, traditional food preparation, and by functioning as a bed and breakfast or food destination, therefore, achieving environmental sustainability as well as financial grounding.
Upon our rendezvous in Chiusi, the heart of the ancient Etruscan civilization, circa 800 BC, we toured the Etruscan Museum and strolled the modest town as we decompressed from our hurried train ride in from Rome. A stop for lunch at Pesce d’Oro, situated along the Lago (lake) di Chiusi, was a sign of good things to come. We were presented with fresh perch from the lake; “brustico” as it is called, flame roasted until the skin is black with char. The skin is peeled away to reveal a sweet, white flaky fish, only to be drizzled with fruity olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. And so the tone was set. We began a love affair with the natural resources the Tuscan landscape would have to offer throughout our trip.
“Are you guys hungry?” asked Pamela. It was a unanimous YES! “It will be the last time you are hungry during your time here,” she assured.  It was Game On!
Our culinary adventure took us to La Porta Osteria in the medieval village of Monticchiello, a charming town with pristine flower gardens accentuating the grand stone dwellings. Here we were treated to a cooking demonstration by Chef Morena and a Tuscan wine tasting with proprietor, sommelier and wine maker Daria Cappelli. Memories of the warm summer sunset, robust wine, and the silky Timballo di Pecorino (a warm cheesy custard of sorts) topped with sautéed earthy wild mushrooms still play over in my mind and on my taste buds.
Our villas at Poggio Entrusco, complete with living and dining rooms, full kitchen, large bathrooms and king size beds wrapped in fine embroidery laced Italian linens, are a welcome site at the end of each busy day. The villas become part of the Tuscan country experience, articulated by hand crafted wood, terra cotta flooring, and antique furnishings. The property is meticulously and artistically kept by Pamela and her husband, artist Johnny Johns. The duo, a west coast gal and mid-western rocker dude / artist, have masterfully crafted their own version of a life abroad, telling their story through food, wine, art and the land around them.
Cooking classes in Pamela’s kitchen are a wonderful and warm blend of hands-on, dough between your fingers tasks, and a virtual tour of Tuscany - all the while with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a fried zucchini blossom in the other. Pamela has written 17 cookbooks to date. Her wealth of knowledge about the Tuscan region and its bounty is driven by her passion. Her nurturing manor is matched by her desire to educate people to not only cook, but to have an understanding and appreciation of the ingredients, sustainable food practices, and recipes steeped in tradition. Cooking in Pamela’s kitchen is an honor.
We hand-rolled an eggless pasta dough into long strands to make pici; picked figs from the tree out back and stuffed them with walnuts and gorgonzola, wrapped them in fig leaves, and steamed them into a sweet and pungent pudding like consistency. Michael made a fig jam tart using olive oil instead of butter; and Marie shaved the fennel and juiced the oranges for our fennel and blood orange salad. I rubbed organic chicken with house made herb salt and we grilled the tender free range birds to perfection, surrounding them vibrant grilled vegetables we picked from the garden or foraged from the famers’ market.  We ate our masterpieces and drank our Poggio Etrusco Sangiovese wine on the patio. We didn’t die, but this was indeed heaven.
Intertwined with culinary workshops at home, an active itinerary ensued daily.  We visited Montepulciano, home of the DOCG wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano which is one of three great Sangiovese DOCG zones in Tuscany, along with Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino.  Dinner at La Grotta included a mouthwatering panzanella salad made with soft moistened bread, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers and capers, and boned quails with rosemary, simply grilled. La Grotta is located directly across from the church of the Madonna di San Biagioi, circa 1500, a Greek-cross plan structure surmounted by a dome and with four geometrical wings. The church was built on the remains of the ancient parish church of St. Blaise where, according to folklore, a painting of Our Lady was seen moving her eyes.
A trip highlight was the hilltown of Pienza, a magnificent place to shop for quality linens and view the work of local artists. A farmhouse lunch was enjoyed at an organic artisanal cheesemaker, Podere il Casale, famous for their Pecorino Toscano cheese.  The 61-hectare (170 acres) estate farms goat, sheep, pigs and cattle, as well as a beautiful wine vineyard and wheat field. Dining at Podere il Casale is a multi-sensory experience where the term farm-to-table is still not enough to convey the connection to the countryside one experiences there. Our chestnut linguini tossed with fresh herbs and extra virgin olive came with a lovely view of deep green pastures and this active working family farm.
While visiting the town of Cortona, Pamela introduced us to family-owned and operated Cantina Palazzo Vecchia, a stunning vineyard, cantina and garden set upon the ancient Farm of Valiano, circa 1300. Here we met Maria Luisa Sbernadori, who spoiled us throughout our afternoon visit. Greeted with hot tea infused with fragrant sage and rosemary, and fresh garden tomato and basil crostini, we toured their vineyard consisting of old and new vines and were able to taste each grape varietal.  Palazzo Vecchia is famous for their award-winning Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Vino Cortona DOC - lush fruit forward wines. Lunch consisted of a cooking class where we rolled out pasta dough and did a free form cut which was then cooked al dente and tossed with milky ricotta, extra virgin olive oil, and those wonderful sweet tomatoes and basil. The property boasts a breathtaking panoramic view of Montepulciano and Cortona which towers in the distance.
Whether cooking, touring, eating or drinking, our Tuscany adventure brought us all back down to earth – literally. The use of the word “organic” here in the states is presented as almost an added bonus if our food is able to be farmed that way, not to mention for those who are fortunate enough to even be able to afford it. We are so obsessed with the idea that we must have access to all foods and at all times, that we poke, prod and produce foods in an unnatural, unhealthy, and inhumane way just to achieve abundance. So sad for us.
“There was no olive oil produced last year, “Pamela informed us when we wanted to purchase a bottle of Poggio Etrusco oil from her, “Most of the region was plagued with a nasty insect. Since we are 100% organic, we tried some natural bug deterrents but the crop season was already too far in for anybody to recoup what had already been infested.”
And so it is. What can’t be produced by natural means, does not get utilized. But if you are truly living off the land (and sea), you can never go hungry.  Upon our return home, armed with Pamela’s cookbook Cucina Povera, Tuscan Peasant Cooking, and a new found appreciation for the ingredients themselves and the techniques we learned, we created quite the feast for our friends and family. More importantly, we created it together.