Tuscan cuisine: wine tasting tours and cookery classes
13 pairs of hands plunged into bowls of flour, warm water and yeast. Within minutes the more experienced cooks in our group were enjoying the therapeutic sensation of kneading warm, neat balls of dough whilst the rest were bemusedly studying hands coated in a sticky beige substance that adhered to every crevice. There was much good-natured laughter, and fortunately Chef was on hand to rescue even the gloopiest mixture, transforming it into something that would eventually resemble the tasty Italian bread: focaccia.
This was part one of our cookery lesson with Master Chef, Federico, at the Villa La Palagina, deep in the Tuscan countryside and another magical moment on our 9 day Tuscan Treats and the Cinque Terre Tour with Back-Roads Touring. Part two required us to make a moat of flour, drop eggs into the centre and, after breaking the yolks, swirl the liquid with our fingers whilst drawing in flour from the walls of our moat. It all sounded so simple yet several walls collapsed allowing rivers of egg to escape and invade neighbouring moats. Chef darted around with his scraper and eventually everyone was rolling out their ball of pasta before cutting it into tagliatelle of various thicknesses and lengths. We would later enjoy the surprisingly tasty fruits of our efforts at lunch on the terrace overlooking vineyards and olive groves, accompanied by the hotel’s own smoked prosciutto and plenty of ruby red Chianti.
Traditional Tuscan fare is hearty, peasant food and those of us of a certain age will remember buying raffia-covered bottles of rough Chianti wine to accompany a romantic night in, thereafter re-used as lamp shades or candle stick holders. Nowadays the emphasis is on quality and purity of produce and after some mediocre meals and surly service experienced in Florence, it was a joy to meet enthusiastic organic farmers and wine producers as we ventured deeper into the heart of Tuscany.
Throughout the region, farms are turning to Agriturismo as a means of supplementing their income: converting outhouses into accommodation; running restaurants and cookery classes using produce from the farm to prepare culinary delights such as antipasti, breads, ravioli, risotto, pasta, gnocchi, soups, sauces, tarts and tiramisu.
Our first wine tasting tour was led by Carlo at Sant’Agnese farm where he proudly showed us around his balsamic vinegar, olive oil and wine producing areas before seating us in their restaurant to share samples of the wines, honey, olive oil and truffle oil, along with a plates of bruschetta, clove of garlic, and chick peas, also produced on the farm. This gastronomic experience concluded with a taste of their delicious fruity balsamic vinegar poured over vanilla ice cream. Carlo, his wife, and his brother Sandro are clearly passionate about their family business and are extremely modest about their charitable works: I discovered that every year they use profits from their more expensive wines to hire vans and take food supplies, in person, to a village in Kenya. Whilst I couldn’t quite run to a bottle of their 170 euro Magnificat, produced by the farm for the Pope until the 17th century, I happily purchased a bottle of their fruity white, wonderfully-named “Easy to fall in love”.
I noted they also run cookery classes and cannot imagine being taught by a more delightful family.
Our second formal wine tasting experience was on our final day and included lunch at the Castello di Verrazzano, set high on a hillside overlooking Chianti countryside. We were greeted by Jillian, a charming escapee from Essex who had visited Tuscany in the 1970s and stayed. We enjoyed a fascinating tour of the Castle’s 1,000 year old cellars, learning about wine production, the strict quality controls, and why we often see a rose bush growing at the start of each row of vines (they are the first to catch and exhibit signs of a disease that affects vines, alerting vintners to the need to take immediate action.)
Over a lunch of roasted vegetables, breads and cold cuts including tasty pork cheeks and pecorino cheese, we were tutored in the art of wine tasting: lift the glass, look, smell, swirl, smell again and enjoy! Definitely no spitting out. After several tastings of red, a generous portion of dessert wine was served with instructions to dunk our biscotti (sweet almond biscuits) and leave to soak before eating. Grappa – a somewhat acquired tasted – accompanied coffee. This was a lovely way to finish our tour, considerably enhanced by Sergio our driver who, unable to join us in the wine tastings, took to the piano and kept us entertained with his repertoire of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra classics.
I look forward to revisiting this beautiful, passionate part of Europe. Meanwhile, the hills around my South Yorkshire home are alive to the sound of Bocelli and Pavarotti, and filled with the aroma of freshly-baked, rosemary-topped focaccia.
Carole and John enjoyed these experiences during an 8 night/9 day tour “Tuscan Treats and the Cinque Terre” through Back-Road Touring.