Of Princes and Peasants: A Culinary Adventure in Tuscany

Up at the villa under the Tuscan sun, savour rustic food in regal settings.

Text and photography by Vivian Vassos

We’ve been invited to lunch with the count – Conte Francesco Miari Fulcis, to be exact – at his villa, the Fattoria di Maiano, in Fiesole in the Tuscan hills. The conte had the extraordinary good fortune to marry into the Corsini family, a family of high ducal nobility that counts the Renaissance among “its time.” If you look hard enough, you may even see the Corsini crest carved into Rome’s resplendent Fontana di Trevi.

But I digress. Our entry into Tuscan culture begins a few days earlier, checking in to the breathtaking Villa Il Poggiale, a historic guest house on another hillside outside Florence. We’re greeted in the wonderfully ornate salon by a silver-haired slip of a woman, and imagine our surprise and delight when she speaks her hullos in a raspy Scottish brogue. Diminutive nature aside, she’s the villa’s major-domo, pouring the Prosecco and spouting the house rules in one easy gesture. It’s a family-run business that has a history in Tuscany and, it seems, as far as the Highlands. It also helps to be greeted in English, as many travellers don’t speak a lick of Italian, so all here are employed to best suit their skills. Interestingly, the tongue of Italy today was born here in Tuscany; the 14th-century language of Florence, of the Renaissance and of Dante.

To unearth the even deeper roots of local cuisine, it was I that was doing the cooking, with chef Libero (free would be the loose translation of his name) on another Tuscan hillside the next morning. First, we must go to market, to seek out the freshest local ingredients. “Kilometro-zero,” is how Libero describes Italy’s zero-mile diet, with his booming, thickly accented English, his salt-and-pepper moustache bobbing below a proboscis worthy of Caesar.

The shopping list reads unpretentious, cal ingredients. “Kilometro-zero,” is how Libero describes Italy’s zero-mile diet, with his booming, thickly accented English, his salt-and-pepper moustache bobbing below a proboscis worthy of Caesar.

The shopping list reads unpretentious, peasant food ingredients: cannellini beans, yesterday’s unsalted bread (more on that later), tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh basil and red onions. These ingredients are the makings of la panzanella, a Tuscan bread salad that, back in the day, was considered soul food for the less than noble. It turns out, however, that this is also a much-lauded, healthier approach to eating, less rich high-fat red meats and more fibre-rich vegetables, fruits, pasta and olive oil. Who’s the poor one now?

“Never beef, in the past,” Libero says, as he stands in the sunshine-filled piazza just off Florence’s Sant’ Ambrogio marketplace. Cosseted in his massive arms is an equally scaled square of fresh, still-warm bread that resembles what we might recognize as focaccia. It’s swaddled in a plain brown wrapper, much like contraband.

“This bread is special – not the usual, unsalted pane sciocco – this bread has salt,” he explains. “In Florence, the others do not.”

Apparently, sometime during the 12th century, Florentines were either blockaded by the Pisans from receiving their salt shipments or some sort of tax increase was levied. In true Renaissance fashion, the Florentines simply refused to pay the tax and invented their own recipe for bread without salt. But damn the tax: the “special” salty hunk of carbohydrates that he proffers holds a sway on us, the locals – and the local carabinieri: even the cops can’t refuse the offer to tear off a bite of heaven.

Bread consumed, ingredients purchased, we head back to Ristorante Tre Pini, Libero’s place in the hills. The chef reappears, out of his leather biker jacket and into his whites, grounded by a tangerine pair of rubber shoes à la Mario Batali. Ah, but this is Italy, and before you cook, you must enjoy a sip of sparkling prosecco to enliven the spirit. He brews his own bubbles – naturally, this is Chianti country.

In Libero’s kitchen, you have no choice but to sing, well, cook, for your supper. (Even his in-laws are in on the act, helping to shape homemade pasta for our lunch.) Sleeves rolled to the elbow, I tear into the day-old unsalted bread, crumbly enough to form the panzanella salad’s base but with a heft that will hold its own among the more delicate tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. The veggies (roughly chopped – we are peasants, after all) are followed by a splash of vinegar, an extremely generous pouring of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. Hands are the salad tongs here, and I dig mine right in and begin to mix it all together. A few torn basil leaves are added and, after a final gentle toss, brava, it’s ready.

This Tuscan Lifestyle Experience, a cookery class at Tre Pini, is presented by Trafalgar Tours as part of the travel company’s Flavors of Italy. The luncheon date at the Count’s is one of the more than 160 Be My Guest options on as many itineraries, punctuated by dining experiences hosted by locals in some of the most charming settings and insider addresses around the world.

“It’s not enough to just take people up the Eiffel Tower any more,” says Liesa Bissett, product development manager at
Trafalgar, which celebrates its 65th birthday this year. “Our guests want to feel like they’ve experienced something they wouldn’t normally on a ‘guided tour.’ ”

Oh, yes, and that experience with the count. To say that the Fattoria di Maiano is singularly spectacular is not enough. It was here at the property’s villa that dinner was served for bright young Brit Helena Bonham Carter in A Room With a View, where she gazed longingly out a second-floor apartment window at the city below and where interiors were as much a part of the scenery. But there’s no rest for the nobles, as this is a country resort with a restaurant on an organic olive oil  farm – a farm that’s been cared for by six centuries of Miari Fulcis.

We take a tour of the olive mill, given by Francesco’s English-speaking son Tommaso, a 20-something youngster whose gracious manner proves that nobility must run in the blood (or his parents have done a darn good job!), where we’re told that the golden green elixir is produced under the auspices of the strict Laudemio premium quality assurance (like the VQA for wines).

 

Today, the property is used for vacations, weddings and family reunions; its dining room, Lo Spaccio, also serves as a delicatessen for the farm’s products, including beautifully bottled organic olive oil. At lunch, we’re served family-style, with all the dishes brought out on platters: la ribollita (bean and bread soup); a tomato-y, black olive-adorned chicken cacciatore; and creamy vegetable risotto. Peasant food, yes, yet fit for a noble.

As the fresh, earthy flavours mix and mingle on my palate, I can’t help but think about the day before, when, after finally serving up the fruits of our labour in Libero’s kitchen, we all sat down to enjoy it. A trio of mature gents serenaded us in Italian and,
language barrier out the window, we all sang along (“That’s amore …”).

Strategically seated next to Libero’s sommelier, Alessandro, I watched him pour me his choice of vintages, fittingly reverential of the grape. He held up his glass, looked me straight in the eye and smiled. “It’s a good day,” he said. I’ll drink to that.

IF YOU GO

Trafalgar’s motto is See the World From the Inside, utilizing what the company calls Travel Directors, multilingual pros with the ability to deftly host groups as well as having relationships with locals that allow for a more authentic experience and the discovery of hidden gems. Itineraries range from CostSaver and relaxed paced At Leisure (its Paris & Provence is very popular – and new for 2012: the U.S., Canada, South America, Australia and New Zealand) to Family Experiences and First Class.

800-352-4444; www.trafalgar.com

NEXT: RECIPE FOR CHEF LIBERO’S LA PANZANELLA

La Panzanella

1  red onion

1 tsp (5ml) vinegar

4 thick slices bread, crusts removed

2 tomatoes, cubed

1  cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced

15 basil leaves

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Slice onion and place in a bowl of water with the vinegar for at least two hours. Drain. Dip bread into the vinegar-water mixture until soft but not soaked. Squeeze bread; break into pieces and place in a bowl. Add onion, tomatoes, cucumber and basil; mix gently. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Makes 4 servings.