Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Organic Tuscany

Località Pino,
50052 Certaldo (FI)

Tel +39 347 328 9333

I decided that, this year, I would like to go on a weeks cookery holiday somewhere in Italy. Searching through the web, I found dozens upon dozens of options. Eventually Organic Tuscany caught my eye. One of the main reasons was that they run two completely vegetarian courses a year, so I booked myself on the first of them.

The course is run by Shilpa and her husband Riccardo from their house about halfway between Florence and Siena. They encourage an ethical lifestyle, and offer advice on travelling to the course by train and before the course, Shilpa put five of us in touch with each other so we could arrange to share a hire car once we were there.

There were seven of us in total on the course, which meant that the kitchen wasn't too crowded during the lessons. There were four cookery lessons during the week that covered pasta making, salads, desserts and various anti-pasti and side dishes, all of which used organic and fresh ingredients, many of which were sourced from local suppliers.

We also visited several organic farms and wineries plus had some time for sightseeing in Florence, Siena and San Gimignano.

When we arrived, we were treated to homemade pizzas cooked in Shilpa and Riccardo's wood-fired brick oven. I even got the chance to slide a pizza into the oven with one of those giant metal "spatulas."

The next morning was spent touring La Ginestra, an organic farm that produces its own honey, olive oil, flours and more. We then ate in their restaurant which I highly recommend if you are in the area.

The first lesson concentrated on pasta. One of Shilpa's friends, Chiara, who runs Sesamo in Barcelona took the lesson alongside Shilpa and we made tagliatelle and two sauces, the first a tomato and basil, the second a courgette and goat's cheese. We also did a really tasty orange and fennel salad and a tiramisu.
We then sat outside and ate the food we had made, accompanied by organic wine, good conversation and the odd firefly or two.

Despite the BBC weather website promising a week of sunshine the weather was very changeable. The next day we had a morning lesson, where we would cook lunch. Then we had an afternoon to visit San Gimignano.

For lunch we made a selection of crostini with different toppings - roasted pepper and goats cheese, melanzana and mint and tomato with olive oil and basil. We also made cannelini beans with tomato sauce, panzanella salad, chard and peccorino flan and panna cotta. Unfortunately the panna cotta did not set properly but it tasted wonderful, as did everything else.

The afternoon, unfortunately was a washout as torrential rain made walking around San Gimignano almost impossible although we did get to see a couple of spectacular rainbows during the afternoon and evening.

The next day we had a whole day free to visit Florence. The Organic Tuscany package includes tickets into the Uffitzi Gallery which has a huge collection of art including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli.

We took the train into Florence and, once there, we went to meet our tour guide who turned out to be a real old fashioned matron kind of woman - imagine the Two Fat Ladies and Rosemary Shrager rolled into one...

She was quite a character, forever telling us to keep up, speaking very loudly in a posh voice while telling other groups to be quiet and moaning at us for visiting the Uffitzi gallery on a Tuesday, as it was its busiest day! However, she did know her stuff and some of the tour was very interesting even if a little politically incorrect. One of the girls managed to 'escape' halfway through the tour, but the rest of us soldiered on. Eventually the guide left and rather than see the rest of the gallery we headed straight for a restaurant where I had a ribbolata (Tuscan vegetable soup) and pasta with porcini for lunch. This was followed by a fabulous gelato before heading back to the train station via Avis car rental so I could be added as a driver to the hire car.

The next morning we met Manuela who, along with Shilpa, took us through making our lunch.

We made a fabulous tomato and bread soup (papa al pomodoro) and a couple of sformati which are a sort of souffle like flan. For dessert we made a custard tart which was a bit runny. This we blamed on Jane's stirring it in more than one direction when she was told not to... It was all very tasty and the weather was lovely, so we were able to eat it, once again, on the terrace.

In the evening we went to La Spinosa an organic winery, where we had a quick tour before going onto their restaurant where we had a very nice meal starting with pear and pecorino with honey, followed by gnocci with pesto and tomato. Then we had vegetable flan with courgette souffle and finished with a fine cheesecake.

The next morning we all went for a walk into the Tuscan countryside and finished off with a picnic. The weather was gorgeous, sunny but not too hot and we were accompanied by the neighbours two dogs, Bianco and Spotty. The walk took us through vineyards and olive groves and we ended up at a church where we met Riccardo who had bought a couple of baskets full of food and wine.

We then went to a shady spot under a cedar tree that overlooked the valley to eat. Once we'd finished eating Shilpa gave a couple of us a lift back to the apartment while the others elected to retrace their steps and make their own way home.

In the early evening we all drove to Siena and had a guided tour of the Duomo and the streets of the city by a guide who was very enthusiastic and very interesting. Once the guided tour was over Shilpa left us to our own devices and, true to form we headed to a bar and then to a very nice restaurant that was on the 'recommended' list that Shilpa had provided.

We each ordered different meals from the menu and got to try each others, which was nice. A couple of the dishes were similar to ones that we have made during the week and the consensus was that ours were better.

Friday morning, we had the last of our cookery lessons. Manuela showed us how to make risotto, cheesecake, a lovely rice salad and a Tuscan dessert made with chestnut flour, raisins, pine nuts and rosemary. Once we had eaten, some of us visited Poggio Antico, a biodynamic farm, where I bought some pasta and cheeses.

We all met up early evening to go to Tenuta Moriano for some wine tasting. We had a tour around the cellars before trying the olive oil and the wine that the estate produces. We tried the San Genovase and the Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were nice but I preferred the San Genovase.

The lady conducting the tasting was very interesting. She told us of the process that they have to go through to be allowed to call their wines 'Chianti'.

After buying a couple of bottles and some oil we left to go to the Trattoria C'era Una Volta where we were to eat. The restaurant has an amazing view across the valley. We ordered a selection of antipasti followed by a different main course for everyone. That way everyone got to try a selection of all the dishes. It was all very nice, but the place was busy, so the service was slightly on the slow side. But that didn't spoil the evening, we all had a good time and said our goodbyes to Shilpa at the end of it.

So that was the end of my week. It was great fun and the people were fantastic. From the time I booked, the comunication between myself, Shilpa and the others was really good and, by the time that I arrived in Certaldo, I felt that I already knew everyone.

The week felt that it was a one off being run especially for us and you never had the feeling that you were just one of many courses that were being run over the course of the summer, the atmosphere was really personal, Shilpa and Riccardo made you feel incredibly welcome, almost like old friends.

The accommodation was in apartments attached to local farmhouses and was pretty basic, but it was fairly comfortable and clean. If you check out the cost of Organic Tuscany compared to other cookery courses you'll see it's considerably cheaper so don't go expecting four star hotels.

I thought it was great and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a fun "foody" week in Tuscany. On top of that, you learn a fair bit about the organic farms and producers in the area and, oh yeah, the food is fantastic!

Since originally writing this posting, Shilpa has added a third vegetarian week to the course diary both for this year and next, which is good news!