After spending a week in the Dordogne region of France at a culinary school in 2006, Mike and I decided to plan a similar trip this year to Tuscany. We’d had such a fantastic experience in 2006, we wondered if we could find another tour that could measure up. The answer: Classic Journey’s “Taste of Tuscany” Culinary Tour.
The lure of this company is that they combine a walking experience of a region with culinary experiences at different locations, ranging from simple country homes to ancient castles to posh city dwellers’ condos to B&B’s. This sounded perfect to us: a chance to burn off some calories while indulging in fabulous meals! Classic Journeys limit their groups to 16 and do not travel in huge tour buses. They believe that the perfect approach to your final destination is to arrive on foot: “crest a hill as the sun is setting and see the ancient village bathed in the burnished colors of the sunset”. This sounded good to us! We sent the information to our friends in Pittsburg; Kathy and Alan – whom we’d met on the France trip and shared some great experiences with. We didn’t even have to twist their arms – they said “sounds good – let’s go”!
After spending a week in Nice, France (future blog article), we arrived in Florence on October 9th and checked into our first hotel, The Monna Lisa: a charming former convent perfectly situated in the heart of Florence. We spent the first 3 nights of the tour here. After meeting the group on Sunday afternoon, our guides Luciano and Francesco took us on a two hour walk around the city to orient us. Our first group dinner that evening at a trattoria introduced us to what to expect for the duration of the tour: start the meal with antipasti – Parma ham (not related to any ham we buy in a deli here), salami (ditto), cheese, bread, liver pate, tomato bruschetta, marinated beans (OK – seriously this was enough for an entire meal!), THEN the first course of pasta, THEN the entrees (2 meat dishes and potatoes) followed by a decadent chocolate torte (they call it cake but that word doesn’t do it justice), grappa and limoncello. Did I mention a constant supply of wine? We asked our guides if real Tuscans would ever eat this much for an evening meal. They explained that “this is the kind of Sunday meal your mama makes every week”. Well, so it was Sunday everyday of our tour: W – O – W
Which leads us to Day One:
Crossed the River Arno to visit an ancient church on a high hill overlooking the city of Florence. When Florentine’s say ancient, they mean 800 – 1200 years old! The church was intriguing, as early Christianity combined mysticism with astrology with religion. The floor was inbedded with the signs of the zodiac. This seems strange to us today. Also; the entire floor consisted of tombs. Entire families would be buried in one grave. This tradition stopped when: a) there was no more room and b) when it became a health hazzard during times of the Plague.
We hiked down the very steep hill and visited the Farmer’s Market: a sensory overload of meat, cheese, spices, fresh produce. We were told to grab a “very light lunch” because dinner (our first cooking class) was going to be “an extravagant affair”.
We boarded our 20 passenger mini tour bus and took a ride way up into the mountains above Florence to the farmhouse of sisters Anna and Alma. The weather was cold and blustery and nothing was more inviting than to enter their old stone farmhouse and smell the woodstove and the food they had already cooked! Our itinerary simply stated: you will learn to make a simple ricotta and spinach filled ravioli. Well, of course, this was only the “first course” (which we learned is the second out of four things you eat at “Mama’s Sunday dinner”).
Anna and Alma live in a remote area and make infrequent trips into town. They are self-sufficient and have their own chickens, rabbits, sheep, gardens. Their vegetable and herb gardens are a thing of beauty: the Tuscan climate produces bountiful crops. Everything Anna and Alma make is from scratch, inlcuding the pasta. We learned how to make the dough, knead it, make it into ribbon thin sheets, and then fill the raviolis. Such fun. Let’s just say: it looks so much easier when they do it! They spoke no English, but would come around and “fix” our mistakes and show us how to do it (again). Look at the hilarious photo below of our ravioli: the really puffed up ones with too much air are mine! But I can also say that these were the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten – we DEVOURED these and everyone asked for seconds and we would have been happy to just eat the ravioli.
Accompanying the ravioli was: fennel salami, pate and pesto on bread, salad, sausage and figs, cheese, pears, guinea fowl, potatoes, 2 kinds of “pies”, wine (duh), sweet wine and homemade limoncello (the best on the trip) and coffee for dessert. Are you imagining this? This meal will stand out in my mind forever! And the charming rustic surroundings only added to the pleasure of the meal. A funny story: our guides served the coffee. I asked for cream and sugar and Francesco dumped about 3 tablespoons fo sugar into my little cup before I could stop him – it tasted like coffee syrup! After dinner we took a nice brisk country walk (see the photo of Nancy and her husband Joe below).
A word about the photography: I would have loved to bring my “real” camera and a variety of lenses. Instead I brought the tiny Canon G9 and challenged myself to produce the best photos possible with a little pocket camera. Without a tripod, the low light photos are a bit too grainy and have some motion blur. But I think they actually look kind of cool!