Tuscany with an Agenda

Fiona Maclean eats and drinks in the culture of this beautiful Italian region

san miniato

San Miniato

san miniato white truffles

San Miniato white truffles

san miniato cured ham

San Miniato cured ham

0live oil pressing - the owner

0live oil pressing - The owner

Olive oil pressing

Olive oil pressing

Olive oil pressing near pistoia

Olive oil pressing near Pistoia

filling pecorino moulds

Filling Pecorino moulds

pecorino drying

Pecorino drying

pecorino labelled

Pecorino labelled

wine store capezzana

Wine store Capezzana

Capezzana vin santo casks

Capezzana vin santo casks

vin santo grapes drying 2

Vin Santo grapes drying

renaissance villa capezzana

Renaissance Villa Capezzana

Martelli Pasta

Martelli Pasta

martelli pasta drying

Martelli pasta drying

Medlars - Il Monte

Medlars - Il Monte

Lari by night

Lari by night

exterior il monte

Exterior Il Monte

Tuscany is a diverse part of Italy, with art and architecture dominating Florence while smaller towns and villages focus on artisan food specialities. Finding time for both on a short visit can be a challenge and, on this particular occasion, a detailed timetable meant that we managed to achieve the seemingly impossible with a good mixture of both. But, while the art and architecture is well documented, the diverse range of gastronomic experiences is perhaps less well explained.

The highlight of the trip for me was the San Miniato White Truffle Festival, where this small hilltop Tuscan village is transformed into the centre of all things truffle. If you’ve never seen or smelt fresh white truffles then make a pilgrimage in November (the festival runs over three weekends throughout November) and be prepared to be intoxicated by the heady, earthy fungi. Of course there’s more to see than just the truffles and it’s an excellent way to get immersed in the gastronomy of the area with olive oil, wine, pecorino and chocolate tastings as you wander through the mediaeval streets.

And, for a more detailed understanding of the artisan foods, you should visit the olive oil mills, the cheese makers, the pasta factories and the vineyards.

We were lucky enough to visit one of the last remaining traditional oil mills near Pistoia right in the middle of harvest. Farmers visit to process their own crop, standing guard over crates of shining black and green olives until they are able to press them and decant the green-gold liquid into vats to store and bottle later.

Up in the hills, you might be lucky enough to find an artisan cheese maker still at work. We visited Mrs Maria Tondini, in her 80s, to learn more about Raw Milk Pecorino or Pecorino a Latte Crudo Della Montagna Pistoiese. It’s a family affair; her son and grandson look after a prize winning flock of black Massese sheep (an ancient breed from Tuscany) hand milking the sheep twice daily so that Maria can make Pecorino and Ricotta. The cheese is superb. Like nothing you’ll ever find in the supermarkets, at every stage it has its own unique flavour and texture, from the softer, creamy 15 day old Pecorino, just firm enough to cut, to the 18 month cheese – an earthy, firm and crumbly expression of this regional speciality.

Or perhaps you are interested in wine and vineyards. Tuscany is full of historic vineyards producing excellent wines. We visited Capezzana, in the commune of Carmignano, where the high altitude means that daytime temperatures in summer are high while nights are cool. Wine and oil has been produced here for over a thousand years and the Renaissance villa has a replica of a parchment sales document detailing some of that production in 804. Apart from the wonderful Carmignano wines upstairs, above the cellars, is the huge ‘vinsantaia’ (where the D.O.C. vin santo is made), from ‘selected’ white grapes, mainly Trebbiano which are dried for several months on cane matting before the must is fermented and matured for over four years in small cherry-wood, oak and chestnut kegs.

And there’s pasta. A simple food where everyone claims to have a ‘secret’ technique or ingredient. Well, our trip to the tiny Martelli pasta factory in Lari suggested that there really is no secret. Their world famous pasta is made of nothing more than flour and water. No eggs, no oil and no secret technique, you can see the dough being prepared and shaped through machinery before being hand cut and packed. Our charming host explained that artisan pasta should be rough, a texture that comes from air-drying the shapes, sometimes for up to 50 hours. That, and the use of the right flour (Semola de Grano Duro) are the only secrets.

To find the hidden treasures of Tuscany you need to leave the towns and cities. By all means spend time in Florence, visit the Academia, the Duomo and the Uffizi and see the wonderful renaissance art treasure. But plan and take time to find and see the traditional foods of the region at origination. And then you’ll be eating and drinking the culture of the region.

For more information on accommodation visit TuscanyNow, providers of villas in Tuscany

Article and images ©Fiona Maclean