Why would you want buy your food pre-packaged from Tesco when you can skip down to the garden and pluck pesticide-free herbs and gather eggs from a happy hen? Locally sourced and welfare-friendly food is becoming a huge trend in foodie circles and where better to indulge in your thoughtful food passion than a sprawling traditional villa nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany.
Sound idyllic? Well, we can safely say it is. Not content with running their award winning food tours in Rome and London our friends at Eating Italy invited us to sample their new Tuscan Food Experience. It’s not all about cooking – although of course it features pretty heavily – the three or four day courses offer a fully fledged Tuscan kitchen experience complete with wine tasting, star gazing and optional horse riding.
The course takes place in Villa Ferraia in Val di Merse, a region in the south of the province of Siena, under the watchful eye of charismatic host Vittorio, calm and gentle chef Stefano and the rest of the team who are all passionate about food, wine and animal welfare. The villa itself is typically Tuscan with 11th century granite stone walls and tastefully rustic interiors. The views in all directions are jaw-dropping: hills most definitely roll, trees sprout upwards from misty green forests and only the odd scuttling family of wild boars break the silence of the eerily empty surrounding lanes. To up the glitz factor, the villa is also home to a sauna, a collection of impressive looking swimming pools (including an infinity pool) and even an astronomical observatory.
After taking in the gorgeous views, the experience is about learning the art of Italian cooking, so after a leisurely breakfast and a trip to the organic garden to gather a few fresh herbs, it was time to don our cooking aprons. There’s something very attractive about the simplicity of Italian cookery, even to non-foodies like us. Thanks to the traditional food gadgetry, the jovial nature of the kitchen staff, and a glass or two of the local wine, it can also be a lot of fun. The classes are a mixture of watching and hands-on experience, and by the end of the weekend we had honed our new skills enough that we were boiling plum jam, thinning pasta sheets, making gnocchi and whipping up a tiramisu as if it was second nature.
No trip to Tuscany is complete without a little exploring, and if a horse ride during the early morning mist isn’t your thing, there are other optional activities. The experience also includes a very civilised wine tasting trip to the medieval city of Siena. Famous for its Il Palio horse races, its art and beautiful architecture you can easily fill a day there. Worth seeing is the Piazza del Campo, the uniquely shaped piazza at the centre of the city (which also doubles at the city horse racetrack twice a year) and the Duomo, Siena’s striking black and white Italian Romanesque cathedral.
Back at the villa we were about to find out why the area is held in such high regard by Italian astronomers. The lack of light pollution means that particular corner of Tuscany is the perfect setting for star gazing. We spend the evening on the onsite professional astronomical observatory sipping wine and peering a little blurry-eyed at constellations through a giant telescope.
The next morning we left the villa with a heavy heart but with a bunch of recipes, new friends, a fresh batch of mozzie bites (make sure you use the repellant spray provided) and with our enduring love of all things Italian still well and truly in tact.
If you want to experience cooking in Tuscany then get in touch with the lovely team at Eating Italy. Also check out their blog about Italian Food – lots of tips and resources for tourists to Italy can be found there.