10 Things You Must Eat at Your Tuscan Villa

Last week I wrote about staying at a Tuscan Villa in Italy where I enjoyed very authentic meals using ingredients that were grown on the farm or sourced from nearby villages. During the one week stay, I was able to get a glimpse of what Italians eat and the proper etiquettes to eat them. I was also dining with the locals during all of the meals, so it was easy to verify the technique of cooking and eating these dishes. Some of the recipes are available on Go Eat Give.

1. Prosciutto and Cheese: A Tuscan meal starts with Salumi and cheese platter. An appertivo cocktail, prosecco or Rose wine accompanies it. Besides your table cheese, you can also serve rich cream of pecorino and sheep cheese from Sardinia.

cheese tasting Italy

2. Raw Fava: Whole raw Fava beans are generally stacked in the middle of the table for everyone to share. You are suppose to grab a few strings, peel them, dip the beans in a little salt, and eat with bread and cheese. The beans are hard and dry so much of the flavor comes from the salt.

fava beans with salt

3. Olive Oil: We always had generous portions of salad, generally served toward the end of the meal. This simple salad of rugola (arugula), black olives, chopped tomatoes, red bell peppers and shaved pecorino cheese is dressed with Montestigliano brand olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. All the olives are grown and pressed at the farm, and has a spicy sharp flavor. I highly recommend doing an olive oil tasting so you can distinguish the color, fragrance and taste of different kinds of olive oil.

Mediterranean salad

4. Spianata: Hearty foccacia is cooked in the oven with a hint of salt, rosemary and olive oil. I especially liked Spianata al forno a legna con ciccioli di maiale (flat bread with pork fat made in a wood oven) which had a flaky buttery texture.

Spianata al forno

5. Farro Salad: Grains are a big part of the Italian diet. The farms grow and harvest wheat, faro, arborio and store them for year round consumption. Farro salad with roasted red peppers,  chopped parsley and olive oil served on a baby bib lettuce makes for a visually appealing yet healthy side dish.

farro

6. Conchiglie al Forno: During one of the al fresco lunches, I had baked conchilie pasta al forno, pasta shells cooked with zucchini and benchémel sauce, sprinkled with pecorino cheese and baked in the oven till light brown. It was garnished with fresh basil leaves and tasted divine!

Conchiglie

7. Pinolata Senesce: For Easter dinner, the family prepared a special treat – pinolata senesce or Tuscan pine nut cake from Siena. The creamy cake had a light flaky crust and soft jam center. It was dusted with powdered sugar and lots of toasted pine nuts.

Pinolata Senesce

8. Torta Budino al Cioccolato: This was not your ordinary chocolate cake, as the bottom was a little soggy and bursted with strong dark chocolate and orange flavors. I pleaded the chef to tell me what was her secret ingredient – vanilla, orange liquor, rum? Find out for yourself as she grudgingly shared her recipe.

Torta Budino al Cioccolato

9. Crostata: I ate a lot of crostatas during my week in Tuscany. A crostata is an Italian cross between a tart and a pie. It is a rustic pastry made with butter, sugar, flour and eggs and filled with  whatever fruits that are available in the season. Apricot jams, apples, plums, elderberries, tomatoes and nuts are some of the inspiring flavors for the crostata. It was served for breakfast, dessert and snacks, but I’m not complaining!

Crostata

10. Cantucci: Otherwise know as almond biscotti or Italian cookies, the only way to eat them is by dipping in Vin Santo dessert wine. The hard biscotti become moist and sweet after a few seconds in the late-harvest wine. It melts in your mouth with a delicious alcohol kick to it. Please do not dip cantucci in coffee or order a cappuccino after a meal as this is a no-no in Italian culture!

CantucciI went for a food tour of Tuscany as a guest of the Donati family. You can book a similar trip directly through Luisa Donati. Rent one of the villas located on the family farm, Montestigliano. During your stay, visit the bio gas station, do a blind olive oil tasting, talk to local producers, go Truffle hunting, learn to make pasta, have a home cook prepare your meals, and dine with the locals.

Read more about my travels in Italy.

A Week at a Tuscan Villa

Have you dreamed about renting a villa in Tuscany or going on a food tour in Italy? Both of these have been on my bucket list for quite sometime and it was a dream come true when I received an invitation from Luisa Donati and Nancy Krabill, who run tours in Tuscany and Le Marche, Italy. More details about the tour in another post. Here I share my experience staying at a real Tuscan Villa.

tuscan villa Sienna

I was picked up from Maria Novella, the main train station in Firenze and we drove off into the Tuscan countryside. We passed by Chianti area, stopped for a brief look at San Gimignano (a small Medieval town), and went through beautiful hills of Siena. An unmarked sign led us into Montestigliano, a privately owned farm estate spread over 2475 acres. We drove into a long narrow pathway with cypress avenues, olive groves and fig trees till we reached Villa Pipistrelli.

Villa Pipistrelli is a magnificent 17th century Tuscan farmhouse restored with modern day amenities while maintaining the architectural integrity of Tuscan countryside architecture.

Villa Pipistrelli Tuscany

The ground floor of Villa Pipistrelli has a cozy living room, dining room, spacious kitchen, two master bedrooms with attached baths and a laundry room. Staircases lead up to the second floor which opens up to another sitting area and three more rooms with baths and a balcony overlooking the olive groves.

room at villa in tuscany
The two large master bedrooms seemed perfect for couples as they had king size beds, high ceilings, wood floors and oversized tubs. I stayed at the smaller one in the corner which had exposed beam ceilings, lime washed walls in soft colors and  touches of modern Italian design in the bathrooms. It felt like I had stepped back in time sleeping on  antique carved bed adorned with floral bedsheets, yet having the luxury of modern living.

The living area is the communal gathering place where guests enjoy a glass of prosecco, chat about their day and connect home with WiFi internet. A fireplace constructed from the original rocky foundation of the home becomes the cherishes spot on chilly nights.

Our meals at the villa reflected home cooked Tuscan cooking using only farm fresh ingredients. We had a local lady come in to cook breakfast, lunch and some dinners at the villa’s rustic open kitchen.  Handmade tagliatelle Bolognese, spinach and ricotta nudi, baked ziti, tiramisu, crostata and other specialties cooked with olive oil, pecorino flour and ham sourced within 0 kilometers enhance the flavors of simply prepared dishes.

breakfast at Villa Pipistrelli

We would enjoy breakfast of fresh baked pastries, eggs, fruit and coffee indoors and lunch al fresco in the patio.

dining room at Villa Pipistrelli

There is nothing more relaxing than enjoying a delicious authentic Italian meal during pleasant spring time temperatures on a quiet farm in Tuscany. One of the aspects I liked most about this trip was that the members of the Donati family (including Luisa, her brother and her daughter) would join us for the meals. It was a more personal experience to eat with the locals and be able to talk to them about everyday life in Italy.

dining area at Villa Tuscany

Outside the villa is a quaint garden and infinity pool (open seasonally) with a backdrop of rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eyes can see. In fact the nearest village is about 30 minutes walk so its not likely you can see or hear any traffic during your stay.

morning mist at tuscan villa

There are plenty of paths to go walking, hiking or biking though. Some of the gusts would wake up early morning to take photos of the rising mists in the hills. I enjoyed long evening strolls trough the canopies of trees and often got lost on the lush property.

walking in Tuscan CountrysideI walked through the olive groves and tasted the Montestigliano brand of olive oil in the food I ate everyday. It was spicy and rich, unlike any other table olive oil I have cooked with before. The olives start growing in the summer and in November, guest can help with harvesting. If anybody is interested in learning more about the working of the farm, Massimo Donati, the family farmer, is eager to give lesson and even host a blind olive oil tasting at the farm’s granary.

Montestigliano olive oil

Montestigliano has several other properties right on the property that were a few steps away from our villa. At one time, the entire place was a working farms and the Donati’s had the farmers living in these homes. Now the homes have been renovated and converted into property rentals. There is Villa Donati  – Casa Luisa – Virginia 1 – Virginia 2 – Casa Marta – Casa Adriana – Ropoli Sopra – Villa Pipistrelli, each of which is equipped with multiple bedrooms, private baths, living rooms, kitchens and lots of view of the Tuscan countryside. You may rent a room, a villa with your friends, or the entire estate, as people do for weddings and special events.

pizza dinner in TuscanyThe common kitchen also prepares special dinners, happy hours and pizza nights where one can socialize with other vacationers. I happen to be in Montestigliano during Easter so the family prepared a special meal for all of the 80 guests staying on the premises that weekend.

family dining in Tuscany

How much does a villa rental in Tuscany cost, you may ask. Prices start at only 700 Euros per week (2 bedrooms at Casa Damiano). A total of 70 beds are available at Montestigliano, and the prices differ by the size of the houses. Villa Pipistrelli rents for 7,400-9,900 Euros per week and accommodates 10 people.

Receive 30% off 1 week and 50% off 2 week rentals at select properties in Tuscany with discount code TUSCANVILLA. For more information or to make a reservation click here

Read This Before You Rent a Car in Europe

Securing a vehicle for ground transportation at my destination is something I have done numerous times.  I research the rental companies as well as third party offers through Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz, and other online agencies.  Careful consideration is given to selecting the appropriate pick-up location, the dates the car is needed, best amenities, and best price; and then, finally, I book a car.  Very soon the confirmation is delivered to my inbox.

Now, most people would put a check mark by “rental car” on their to-do-list.  I put a check with another date, because a few days before the trip, I will call the rental agency to make sure everything is in order.  Oh, I do not expect any problems, but I just like to make sure. With that said, I had obviously never tried to rent a car internationally, until preparing for my recent trip to Europe.  Renting a car for my stay in Italy proved to be time consuming, nerve wracking, and an oddly rewarding learning experience.  Here are 6 important things I learned.

Italian Car Rental

1. Choose stick or automatic:  The first and most formidable obstacle was the scarcity of rentals with automatic transmissions.  Availability and the best prices await travelers who can drive a stick.  Manual transmission vehicles rent at a significantly lower rate than their automatic counterparts.

2. Begin your search early:  If you are like me and a stick is out of the question, I would strongly encourage you to begin looking for a rental car at least two months in advance.  What I have learned is that only in the United States, Canada, and Australia do automatic transmissions reign supreme.  Not to worry though, a limited number of rentals with automatic transmissions are in stock for us Americans, but when they’re gone, they are gone.  The ambience of casually touring the Italian Riviera will not be the same from the backseat of a taxi or from a tour bus.

3. Understand insurance coverage and options:  The next lesson I would learn was the difference in the rental insurance requirements and mandates.  In Italy, Collision Damage Waiver Insurance is mandatory.  It is almost always included in the rental price quote.  If this insurance is not a part of the quote, it will be added before payment is made.  It cannot be declined.

Excess Insurance is an optional insurance to cover payment of “excess damage assessments” should dings, dents, scratches, or any other type of damage be found outside of what is included in the Collision Damage Waiver Insurance.  This is the insurance we never really think we will need, but we are afraid not to get.  For this trip the optional insurance was purchased, but not through the car rental company.

4. Shop around for optional coverage:  Many car rental companies will try and convince buyers that they will not accept third party excess damage insurance.  Do not fall prey to this tactic.  Third party companies such as iCarhireinsurance.com sell this optional insurance at a much cheaper rate.  Frequent road warriors may purchase it annually and their coverage is available globally.

After much back and forth deliberation, I booked an automatic transmission vehicle, which was covered by the mandatory CDW and the optional Excess Insurance through the third party company, rentalcars.com.  Finally, I breathe a sigh of relief, feeling empowered with the accomplishment of navigating an international car rental.  I could just picture us cruising along the Italian Riviera.

5. Check for holidays that may affect your visit:  A few days before leaving the United States, I contacted rentalcars.com to verify the booking.  Everything was confirmed, the reservation had been booked with Thrifty and I was told there was no cause for worry.  Despite this assurance, I felt very uneasy, I tried but I could not shake the feeling that something might go wrong.  Not having a car in the US is one thing, but to be without a car, or without one with an automatic transmission on a foreign continent would be a disaster.  Perhaps my tension was further fueled by something I have not mentioned.  The day we were to pick-up the car was a national holiday and most major rental outlets and other businesses across the entire country would be closed.

6. Confirm your reservation with the pick-up location:  I needed relief from the awful feeling within me, so I called Thrifty and to my dismay the representative informed me that there was nothing in their system for me.  After countless hours on hold, more than four representatives, and several transfers, not one representative could find my booking.  Panic set in, but I quickly called rentalcars.com and explained the situation.  To my relief, a very knowledgeable agent told me exactly why there was no need for all my anxieties.

To get the best prices, rentalcars.com collaborates directly with the car pick-up location.  Therefore the confirmation number was specific only to the Thrifty location in Florence, Italy, where I would receive the vehicle.  In my final attempt to be assured that we would not be on foot during this vacation, I loaded $10 onto my Skype account and called the Thrifty pick-up site in Florence, Italy.  When I asked about a reservation for Kaylah Burks, I heard the sweet sound of, “Si, Signora Burks, we have your car rental reservation in our system.”

For more information on international car rentals, check back for my next article featuring great tips on must have gps options, the pick-up process and pumping gas.

~ By Kaylah Burks, an athlete, who enjoys traveling the world while staying health conscious.  Follow her on Instagram @jadenlie

Eating and Drinking with the Padlots

Picture my surprise when I was told that a group of 9 Italian men were coming over to cook dinner for us (a group of journalists) in Italy! The group is called Accademia del Padlot meaning the academy of “a giant ladle that is used to pour wine.” Founded in 1996, a group of men in the village of Mercatello sul Metauro, nestled between Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and Umbria, decided they needed a formal organization to eat, drink and forge friendships.

academia padlot

The groups consists of men of different ages, political views and professions, but are united by their love for gastronomy. Their programs consist of a daily drink, monthly dinners and yearly trips. Renting a little bus, the group has traveled to Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Chianti, Amarone, Sauvignon, Gewurtz-Traminer and many more regions of Italy.

Mission Statement: The Academy of Padlòt is the free association of all those who, moved by a passion for learning, explore and transmission to future generations of all that concerns the good drink, want to put a glass of good wine in good company.

padlots

An article in their bylaw says: The “drunk Plenary” is the most solemn moment of the life of the Academy, where academics find themselves in harmony taste. Plenary decided that the drink is done on a weekly basis, on the day Thursday beginning at quarter past six p.m. (approximately). At that time the academicians can express themselves freely.

This group of men rarely prepare food for outside groups, preferring to cook for themselves and their close family and friends, but they cooked a special feast for us – their visiting friends from US and Canada.

The Padlots came marching into Palazzo Donati (a 8-bedroom villa where I was staying) prepared with an ambitious menu. I was certain they had done this before, for the dishes were well thought out and ingredients already sourced from local farms.

Padlot dinner menu

They started working hard in the kitchen making sauces, boiling fresh pasta, roasting vegetables and sautéing cuts of meat I had never seen before. They ensured we all had our glasses filled with Prosecco as we watched them cook and chit chatted in the kitchen.

Palazzo Donati kitchen

The first course or antipasti was simple yet flavorful creations: Charcuterie – salami and various cuts of meat; Bruschetta – toasted bread slices rubbed with  garlic, olive oil and salt; Crostini con Paté – sliced baguette with sausage and liver pate; and Fave e Formaggio Fresco – Fava beans with holiday cheese. They instructed us to peel raw Fava beans, dip them in salt and eat them with farmers cheese and bread. Torta pascuela, a traditional Easter cheese bread (made with gruyere, pecorino and romanesco) from Umbria was brought in for the special occasion.

Palazzo Donati has two kitchens – one for commercial use and the other a rustic open hearth with family style tables. We convened in they instructed us to peel raw Fava beans, dip them in salt and eat them with farmers cheese and bread. Torta pascuela, a traditional Easter cheese bread (made with gruyere, pecorino and romanesco) from Umbria was brought in for the special occasion.

padlot7

Meanwhile Lanfranco stirred Coradella – lamb’s liver with young garlic. This kidney and lungs combination looked pretty scary to me but I’m sure it was a carnivores delight. On another stovetop, they cooked Goletta con salvia e aceto o vino bianco – pig’s jowl with sage, vinegar and white wine. And a third tended to wild boar stew called Spezzatino di Cinghiale. We were definitely in for a manly meal!

lamb liver and kidney casserole

A local resident named Lina has supposedly won every tagliatelle pasta challenge in this part of the world, so a meal would be incomplete without trying it. It came through well together with the succulent guinea pig ragout and tomato sauce.

Fresh tagliatelle pasta in Le Marche

The open fire was well utilized. For sides, Italian red Chicory known as Radicchio rosso in graticola was grilled to where it was crispy, and whole potatoes wrapped in alumni foil were cooked in the ash from the firewood, rather than baked. This ash potato was called Patate Sotto il Fuoco.

grilled hearts of palm

The party got bigger once friends from the village joined in. The prosecco gave way to a fruity Rose, then a full bodied red wine, followed by after dinner Spumanti.

Palazzo Donati Italy We ate Italian-style, which meant the food never stopped coming and not accepting seconds was an insult to the chefs. Many of the nine men were posting photos on Facebook already, so I dared not offend their culinary skills (which by the way, were simply outstanding) or be publicly shunned on social media.

academia padlot men prepare dinner

Alas the dessert was a homemade Crostata prepared by by Elizio (one of the Padlot’s) wife. A delicately laced tart made with butter, sugar, flour and eggs and filled with an interesting combination of plums, elderberry and tomatoes played a sweet-tart melody in my mouth.

elderberry crostataNo family style Italian meal is complete without some singing. It was a real treat to sit around the table, singing old Italian tunes with a bunch of locals who were passionate about food and wine.

It is almost impossible to book this experience online through a travel agent, as Academia del Padlòt exclusively hosts guests of Palazzo Donati. The villa is available to rent throughout the year and one-week packages include cooking classes, language course, wine tasting, walking tours, one on one with local artists and of course, a dinner with the Padlots!

Postcard Views of Portofino

Portofino is a small fishing village located on the Tyrrenian Sea in the Liguria region of Italy. Known for its picturesque harbor, it is a famous destination for vacationers and celebrity residents on the Italian Riviera.

portofino photo

Portofino does not have an airport or train station. I highly recommend arriving by boat or bus, although you can also walk or drive to it. Hourly ferries run from neighboring towns, ferry services from Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, Rapallo, Chiavari, Lavagna, Sestri Levante to Portovenere and Cinqueterre and to Genoa’s port. From the water, you can get an extraordinary 360 perspective of the colorful building along the harbor.

portofino

Although the port itself is quite commercial, the backdrop of colorful buildings leaning onto each other and the turquoise blue waters adds a magical appearance to the landscape. Some would call it a “tourist trap” as there are lots of expensive restaurants, bars and shops alongside the port. In my opinion, you go to Portofino to admire its beautiful architecture and scenery, not to get an authentic meal.

portofino3

Spend some time taking the stairs up to Castello Brown on one end and Church of St. Martin (Divo Martino) on the other. Walking through narrow cobblestone alleys with perfumed gardens are great ways to explore the old town and get away from the hustle and bustle of tourists. On the way, you will come across many photo opportunities.

portofino2

Another good walk is through the gardens of Hotel Splendido, located at the top of the hill in a cozy corner. Visitors can enjoy the view from the property for free, but if you want to stay around to have a lunch or cocktails, be prepared to bring your credit card.

portofino1

There are cheaper and local snacking options that are native to the region. When in Liguria, you have to try the Focaccia alla Genovese, a flat bread baked with olive oil, salt and herbs (such as rosemary). Although the flavors are simple, the freshness of the ingredients makes it hard to resist munching through many squares of the bread.

portofino6Paciugo is an Italian Riviera sundae found especially in Portofino. A few restaurants seems to carry this sweet concoction of vanilla ice cream and raspberry sorbet, mixed with fresh whipped cream, strawberries and stewed cherries. It’s definitely worth 12 Euros for a cup!

portofino5

Click here to read more on traveling in Italy.

Listen to the song Love in Portofino by Andrea Bocelli. 

Book your stay at Hotel Splendido

Truffle Diggers From Italy

The Lagotto Romagnolo is a breed of dog that comes from the Romagna sub-region of Italy. The name means “lake dog from Romagna,” coming from the Italian word lagolake. Its traditional function is a gundog, specifically a water retriever. However, it is often used to hunt for truffles. Lagotto have been hunting dogs for at least three thousand years, and truffle dogs for maybe a hundred years, if that.

Lagotto Romagnolo

Imagine my surprise when I saw these adorable faces at The Blackberry Farm, an upscale hotel and resort adjacent to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The Farm recently started a new initiative to breed Lagottos on property under the supervision of Mr. Jim Sanford, a professional elephant trainer of many years.

Photo by lagottoamerica.com
Photo by lagottoamerica.com

These Lagottos were carefully flown in from Italy and given the finest southern hospitality. They receive 24-hour care, heated kennels, and lots of training time among the crisp mountain air. When I arrived at the Farm, a 2-3 weeks old young litter was being nurtured in a quiet room with hay stack and heated lamps.

Lagotto Romagnolo

Training for these Lagottos starts on day 1. The house broken puppies are sold for $6,000, and ones without training for only $3,000. All the puppies from the Blackberry Farm have found good residences, mostly in celebrity homes and in Beverly Hills.

The Farm currently sources black truffles from the neighboring farm of Tom Michaels.  Upon finding this treasure trove of truffles, he brought them to the kitchen at Blackberry Farm where they were immediately offered at that evening’s dinner service. So began the relationship with Dr. Michaels, which has lead to the planting of Blackberry Farm’s own truffle orchard.

So on future visits to Blackberry Farm, you may just have the opportunity to harvest your own truffle and have it shaved for you at dinner that very night…and on your farm eggs in the morning!

And if you are lucky, you may even be able to take a Lagotto Romagnolo puppy home.

Lagotto Romagnolo

 

Shells with gorgonzola and pistachios

You might think pasta, pistachios and the strong flavor of gorgonzola make for an odd combination, but it works! It is so easy to make and only takes a few minutes. The dish is quite rich so I recommend serving it as a side to a meat entree.

I served it at our Italian conversation club, Ciancia meeting and everyone asked me for the recipe!

Tip: Do not make ahead of time

shells with gorgonzola

Shells with Gorgonzola and Pistachios (Serves 4)

1/3 cup pistachios, skinned and chopped
3.5 oz diced Gorgonzola cheese
2 tablespoons heavy cream
11 oz shell pasta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt to taste
 
Cook the shells in salt until al dente. Drain and transfer to a serving dish. Melt the Gorgonzola and cream in a pan on low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and keep aside. 
Mix together the shells with all the ingredients. Serve immediately.

Timeless Fashion from Italy

Italy has long established itself as the fashion capital of the world. Many famous designers and name brands have originated from Italy and spread their fashions around the world. It is not surprising then that the first Gucci museum in the world opened in Florence in September 2011 at the famous Piazza della Signoria. Continue reading “Timeless Fashion from Italy”