A tour of Italy part 3 – TUSCANY
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
To find out more about the club or vacations – check out http://www.cookingintuscany.cc
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?