Tuscany – A tour of Italy part 3

A tour of Italy part 3 – TUSCANY

Chicca in the olive trees

Since leaving the US and after traveling to numerous countries, islands and towns, we have loved each stop in its own way, but never felt “at home” in any of them. This is the first time in 19 months we felt immediately as though we could set up housekeeping and feel right at home.

At the beginning of the summer, I saw an Instagram post from my cousin who extolled the virtues of the Tuscany region and “Cooking In Tuscany” in particular. Herself an avid traveler, biker and free spirit, I knew that if she was recommending it, we would love it. I reached out to Chicca Maione, the co-owner and Chef extraordinaire and asked if she would be doing cooking classes over the summer when we hoped to be there. Unfortunately, Covid prevented my friend from the US, who was planning to accompany me, from arriving. Our family immigration issues coupled with rapidly changing weather in the Northern Med all threatened to prevent the meeting. After a bit of prodding from Alec however, knowing how much I enjoy cooking and was looking forward to a class in Tuscany, we decided to take a day from our packed tour of Italy schedule and drive to the cooking class.

Approximately 1 hour from Florence, we rented a car and enjoyed a stunning drive to Castagneto Carducci, just a few km from the Mediterranean coast.

The entire drive was something out of a coffee table book on Tuscany! Gorgeous!

Chicca and Arnaud live in an idealic 18th century farmhouse straight out of a picture book with about 20 olive trees separating them from the closest neighbor. When we first arrived, we were greeting by Freda, one of the house pets who, though a puppy, looked like a fully-grown Lab to us. She is the friendliest creature, and a perfect ambassador for the experience.
Given our rapidly growing kinship, it is a wonder we cooked anything on that first day, and if not for Chicca (pronounced Kee – ka), keeping us focused and on task, we could have just sat and talked the day away.

But we were there to cook so we quickly washed hands and set about making our first and most delicious tasting fettuccine any of us have ever eaten. We also made Gnocchi and the simplest of desserts, a ricotta fluff with fresh figs on top.

In the course of getting to know one another, Chicca told us that “her” Americans who help her with the olive harvest couldn’t make it due to Covid. Harvesting olives and witnessing the creation of the liquid gold we call olive oil has been a bucket list item for Alec for years. Learning that the harvest was to take place in 2 days, it was easy math for 2 retired people to cancel the flights home and add “olive picker” to the resume.

So, we raced back to Florence, crammed in several more sights and museums and raced back to COOKING WITH TUSCANY just in time for the olive harvest. Actually, the harvest got started at 8 and we arrived probably closer to 11 but we worked until sundown that day picking and carefully gathering the olives.

One of the gifts of this experience and a lesson very close to our hearts- is to connect ourselves, and more importantly, Jack, to the food we use to fuel our passions. Spending the day gathering olives from ancient trees, then watching the press, as this prized fruit is turned into nutrient rich, green- grassy, delicious oil, created for all of us, a deep connection and appreciation for this Italian delicacy. So much so, that we have hardly touched butter since arriving in Italy.

Talk about connecting with your food! It tastes better than it looks!

Once, at dinner in Portofino, Jack asked the server for some butter. That request was met with a 5 -minute lecture, from the server, on how healthy olive oil is for the body and how unhealthy butter is. The server eventually brought the butter but who could eat it after that! We had, of course, told Jack the same thing but hearing it from a complete stranger had a monumental effect. He has not really had or asked for butter ever since.

So, picking these gorgeous olives and then tasting and appreciating the fruits of the labor made this a very impactful, and memorable experience. We were compensated with 5 liters of the liquid gold for our efforts – well worth the hours outdoors enjoying the harvest.

Should you find yourself on a trip to Italy, Chicca and Arnaud have the loveliest apartments for rent. Don’t miss an opportunity to stay with Chicca and learn how to cook authentic Italian meals with the recipes from Chicca’s grandmother.

Adapting to the crazy Covid times in which we live, Chicca has begun teaching via Zoom, conducting cooking classes live from her kitchen. Together with friends from the US, Jack and I are continuing the fun and cooking now that we are back on board. There is something so surreal to me about learning to cook authentic meals and learning Italian all while living in Italy. Especially during these Covid times when we all need to be spending more time closer to home and away from crowds. Zoom is so fantastic for allowing these opportunities for enrichment right in the safety and security of our own home. Check out club@cookingintuscany.cc for more information

To find out more about the club or vacations – check out http://www.cookingintuscany.cc

Cooking club or vacations – check it out!!

There is more to this area than olives. The medieval village of Bolgheri, a hamlet of Castagneto Carducci in the province of Livorno is nearby. Touting a museum which explores the world of food and history of the area, foodies can’t miss it. Due to the micro-climate and characteristics of the soil, this area produces some of the most world renown Bordeaux origin wines known as “Super Tuscan” producers. For those who prefer the sea to the mountains, a short 20 minute drive is the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea with a very low key – non touristic vibe.

To be clear, there is truly something for everyone here. Less than a 2 hour drive from Rome, Florence, Siena, and world class food and wine, who could want for anything more?

FLORENCE AND TUSCANY

BOY AM I BEHIND!!!

ICONIC PORTOFINO

I had planned to write about our nearly 3-week road trip through Italy bit by bit, but I expected it to be more timely than this! We have been having so much fun in Marina di Ragusa, Italy getting settled that the past has been harder and harder to write about. Still, it is part of the journal and important so I’m going to get it together now and write a bit about the other fabulous places we visited on the trip. Brevity will dictate that tons will be missed.

PORTOFINO AND CINQUE TERRE

Leaving Rome, we took a 4.5 -hour train ride up the gorgeous Western coast of Italy to Portofino. We had only planned a few days here but extended so that we could take the train back down and explore Cinque Terre. Additionally, we had a day of total wash out – too windy or rainy to do anything at all. In Italy there is a color code system whereby if your town goes “red” you are instructed to stay home – streets closed. While we were in Portofino the color went “red” so we stayed in-doors. Not a bad idea when all of the “cittas” are connected by either train or boat.

All 5 villages are very difficult to reach by car due to the steep and unforgiving mountainous terrain. In fact, getting between the 5 fishing villages known as Cinque Terre is only advised by walking or train. We had a glorious hike between Montorosso and Vernazza taking full advantage of not only the beautiful fall weather, but also the lack of tourists during this Covid time and shoulder season. Hiking between these 2 fishing villages involved encountering about 10 people in 3 hours. Unheard of!

The walk itself was enchanting – imagine walking from vineyard to vineyard through the gardens of adorable farm- houses. At one point, and after climbing straight up for nearly 40 minutes, we heard the most delightful sound of an accordion. Nestled in the vineyard, overlooking the breathtaking Ligurian Sea, was this charming Italian man entertaining visitors with his accordion playing music straight out of a Dean Martin, Amore’ reproduction

The entire area is a national park and a UNESCO heritage site. Italy is home to a whopping 55 UNESCO HERITAGE SITES of which 5 are Natural and 50 are Cultural. The Cinque Terre National Park is comprised of steep paths up and down the mountain connecting the 5 fishing villages. Arriving at a village is a bit as I imagine base camp to be at Everest with hikers milling about and outfitters selling back- packs but the weather was gorgeous and the villages exuding charm that was authentic and delightful. One of the surprises we experienced in Italy in general is that regardless of how “touristy” an area, a marvelous meal can be enjoyed wherever one stops. In most areas of the world it is best to get off the beaten path to find a good meal and certainly don’t plan a gourmet experience in the heart of any tourist attraction but not so in Italy. We were too hungry to go looking for an “out of the way spot” so we decided on a restaurant overlooking the water in Vernazza. I had the best bowl of pasta fagioli soup I have ever eaten. The food here seriously makes me wish I had 2 stomachs.

All of these touristy destinations we enjoyed were fantastic – just to be clear – but even with a lack of people we struggle having to pay 7 Euro in Portofino for a Cappuccino and 45 Euro for a little Aperitivo.

THE 45 EURO APERTIVO:-)

Aperitive in Italy is a delightful tradition of finding a piazza and having a little very low alcohol drink with some small snacks before dinner in the early evening. Alec and I don’t drink so we try to find non-alcoholic beer to accompany our snacks. While we have been very fortunate to find NA beer all over Europe – it is less widely available in the touristy areas. I think it can be said that we don’t love the touristy areas. The server in Portofino was bothered that we didn’t want alcohol and he brought us our non-alcoholic drinks very begrudgingly – and then charged us 45 Euro for the experience. All of this at a time when there were fewer than 20 people in the entire piazza and 5 in total at the restaurant. I would hate to see the service that a full town would bring. So, while we loved the beauty of Portofino, it is definitely a box that has been checked for us.

PISA

So, a couple of bus rides and a train ride and we were in Pisa. We just passed through on our way to Florence, but one simply cannot pass it by and miss seeing the iconic tower, yet another of the 55 UNESCO Heritage sites in this lucky country.

Best known for the current 4 degree lean, the bell tower for the cathedral is perhaps equally interesting because of it’s location not co-located with the cathedral itself. Though the tower began the infamous lean during it’s 12th century construction, it was stabilized in 1990 after the tilt reached 5.5 degrees.

Another amazing meal right at the tower and we are off to collect our rental car for the rest of our time in Italy.

HOLDING UP THE TOWER

FLORENCE

Perhaps the best reason to return to a country after a long absence is due to how our perceptions and interests shift as we age. Not my first visit to Florence, I was here perhaps 25 years ago, but the changes in the city were not nearly as marked as the changes in me during that time.

Which is why, it should come as no surprise, my recollections were so cloudy as to be useless. Moreover, my perceptions and reactions were totally different. I recall “liking” the city and appreciating the vast collection of art that calls Florence home, but this visit left me completely bowled over!

Florence, the capital city in the Tuscany region of Italy, is most certainly best known as the birthplace of the Renaissance. When we were traveling around, I was so tempted to write about our travels in a time line because having left Siracusa, which enjoyed it’s historical “hey day” in the years Before Christ, and then traveling to Rome where we dined on a feast of the Roman Empire era, to finally arrive in Florence, surrounded as we were by medieval and neo-classical architecture, and history, felt so sharp in contrast. In fact, we loved visiting several other wonderful cities’ whose greatest days were enjoyed in Medieval times. Bolgheri and Siena are 2 such great cities and no trip to the Tuscany region would be complete without stopping there. I loved them both and could write a piece on each alone but brevity dictates that I keep moving – but please, if you are reading this contemplating which towns to visit, don’t miss Siena and Bolgheri.

Siena pictured below

But I digress, Florence…

Another UNESCO heritage site, the Historical city of Florence was also ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We had booked an air bnb and typical for my priorities, we were right in the heart of Florence.

Arriving at the front door to the apartment, the locale didn’t quite look like the photos in the booking. Not deterred, we continued in to discover what it most certainly must feel like to sleep in a palace – or a museum. It was extraordinary! Not every experience works so well but we loved our time in Florence in this magical apartment right in the heart of the Renaissance Era.

The front was not at all the palace we walked into – Jack was a bit worried

Home to the Uffizi museum as well as several others including the Galleria dell’ Accademia one can see works displayed by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael and others too numerous to note. These were the 2 museums we made it to on this “way to short” trip to Florence.

As with Rome, one can simply meander into a church and discover priceless master works created during the Renaissance.

Portofino

We booked 2 tours here. Time constrained by flights home, cat sitters, and a last- minute trip to pick olives (saving this for another blog post next week) we crammed what should have been a full 1-2 weeks into 2 days. To be sure, I truly did a terrible dis-service to the kind and wonderful Elvis who showed us around. Dragging Jack to one then another museum on a way too rushed trip of this fantastic city – just wore out our poor 10 year- old world traveler. We did get a terrific “dividend” upon wandering into a room in the Uffizzi museum, Jack, exhausted and desperate to have lunch looked up and exclaimed “WOW! I have always wanted to see Botecelli’s Venus!” “Is that an original?”. Shocked, I glanced down at the plaque on the side to see that in fact, it was Botecellis’ Venus. Not entirely sure if this was knowledge that came from his amazing Montessori education until last year, or our homeschooling efforts last year, we were grateful to see that more is sinking in than falling out.

This city should easily have been planned for a week or more, but I just didn’t remember how magnificent it was. Alec and I would desperately love to return for a much longer stay. As with the other destinations – due to Covid, we only had a handful of visitors competing for space in front of the priceless and breathtaking works of art who call Florence home. Jack spent probably 30 minutes admiring “David” from all angles. It is very heartening to watch one’s child appreciating – truly appreciating- something as magnificent as this. I wonder what we would be missing if not for Jack. So much of what we book, see or plan is to give Jack the opportunity for discovery and education but at the “end of the day” Alec and I know that we are the ones getting the benefit and education. Sometimes when I look back at what I would have booked had we not wanted to show Jack something, I realize that those were the things that were the best and not only for the obvious reason of being able to see it or appreciate it through your child’s eyes but also on its own merit.

So – enough said – my next and final post about our 3 -week trip around Italy will be on Castagneto Carducci. I can’t wait to talk about another great love of mine – FOOD!!!

We will be writing about olives, pasta and olive oil!!!

Chicca, Arnaud, Jack and Alec COOKING IN TUSCANY!!