My life revolves around 3 things: Italy, food and hooch. Food being my first love, Italy second and Hooch the last but not least! I knew one day I would move to Italy but I didn’t have any clue I would have been this lucky. In a country as paradoxical as Italy, I somehow managed to make a way for myself without knowing anyone. In exactly what I wanted to be doing. Believe me, I took odd jobs, had my patience tested and I did whatever I needed to do to. So now that I’ve bored you all to tears with my Dr. Phil Opera book club ego stroke fest, I will tell you that I do plan on writing a book about this experience, it will include of course the token romantic scandal. Stay tuned!
I recently visited a local farm for a cheese and wine tour in the Tuscan town Montepulciano, (just 1.5 hours south of Florence) and I have to say I had my mind blown just a little bit.
The farm I visited has a little over 100 sheep and goat to produce the typical pecorino toscano cheese that is so fundamental to Tuscan cheese culture. Pecorino is Italian for sheep milk cheese (although some mix in some goat milk), and Tuscany is not the only region that has its own pecorino cheese. Like you may have heard of pecorino romano (from Lazio) or pecorino sardo (from Sardinia). History of sheep’s milk cheese dates back several centuries as the food was a luxury item for the nobility but also at the same time a form of sustenance for pastoral peasants as the cheese packs a lot of flavor when aged (perfect for enhancing a peasant vegetable soup) or a lot of nutrition when fresh (like fresh pecorino).
What was interesting to me is that the farm was completely organic and produced also grains (which they use for pasta and bread making), olive oil (like everyone in Tuscany- olive trees are everywhere here), wine and apiculture (honey!). I was happy to see some young people working the farm because this today is sort of trendy but realistically, a self-sustaining farm is how Italians have survived in historically poor eras and how many rural societies operate today.Rural communities produce and exchange (or sell) with their neighbors and on a small (organic) scale, it can work.
However, more and more people are becoming less and less interested in working in the fields and migrating to cities for office jobs. Part of this has forced big farms to become the norm and thus increased their thirst (and need) for profit by using non-organic means. There is no way the world can produce natural, organic small scale produced food for what like 7 billion people especially when agronomists and farmers are dwindling and land grabs for urban sprawl are increasing.
As much as I am a huge proponent for sustainable, organic food- I also realize that at this current time it is impossible to expect. However, in a small country like Italy- it could make sense. Except the fact that people are generally poor here and it makes sense for a family to buy a kilo of breakfast cookies for €4 euros by a huge multinational who is probably sourcing flour from several countries (whose quality standards I question) than buy organic whole grain locally baked ones for more than triple the price. There is no way a bag of cookies that weighs a kilo could cost €4 without cutting corners, and in my opinion- safety.
More and more I see the importance of organic food production. Digesting agri-chemicals which leave residue on our food undoubtedly is unhealthy and increases our risk for disease when constantly exposed. It’s not just consuming the food with chemical residue- it’s the production plants that undoubtedly pollute the air and water of nearby towns. It’s a risk to the farm workers breathing in the sprays in the fields. It’s the petrol chemicals being refined in order to produce them. It’s the fracking for oil which then pollutes our environment (water included) which is then needed to extract energy to produce agrichemicals. But as much as I am lecturing on about this- I don’t see any other realistic alternative at this time. Unless of course, we all go back to nature and learn to be somewhat self-sufficient. Or until green energy becomes profitable. Organic food is definitely profitable but that means only a select few can actually afford it. And that’s not right. Everyone has the right to clean and healthy food that won’t poison them. But something has got to give. We need to learn how to even just grow herbs on our windowsill. I have friends in Italy who are letting their family vineyards be demolished because they have no interest in carrying on the tradition of family wine production. We need to somehow bring back interest in self-sufficiency and pressure our elected officials to invest more in organic agriculture and divest in agribusiness. We decidedly depend too much on the market to provide things we can’t be bothered to produce and demand too much from it to be perfect.
So I didn’t talk so much about the amazing cheese flight, floral thick honey and the lovely homestyle organic wine…because well, these topics impressed me more. That a group of people have chosen to go against the grain and live a rough, rural lifestyle for the sake of clean food. These people have to work hard to maintain an organic production site- it’s not always rosy. They have to decide to live in the inefficiencies of the countryside in total isolation. But it is a sacrifice that creates beautiful foods that nourish not only the people that visit, but keeps the idealism alive that the world can be a healthy, organic and green planet.
I have never been so aware of being American in my life. I am defined as “The American.” In Italy, of course. Which is funny, because at home, I don’t actually think about my cultural identity as an American. If anything, I feel more rebellious and self righteous towards America’s culture and want to cling to my Sicilian/Persian heritage for dear life. But when I am in Italy, I sing America’s praises. I am completely insatiable. Always looking at life through an anthro-analytical glass, trying to identify the inconsistencies and paradoxes.
So the point is that I went to The Diner in Florence craving a weekend brunch fix of eggs benedict with some fellow anglo pals who decided to be guest Americans for the day for the sake of bagels and pancakes. The irony of it all is that in America, I turn my nose up at most “diner-y” places and anything that isn’t local, gourmet, foodie and has marketing which pleases my west-coast profile as a liberal “foodie” Seattlelite who read “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” in college. Or! If it isn’t a cutesy “bistro”, it has gotta be a complete dive run by scary (or cute) men with tattoos and piercing who are probably more hungover than me.
But I went to The Diner with hopes to have an American fix- not just greasy spoon brunch but to order in English and for someone to not glare at me as if I just slapped their mother every time I order a café americano. And what did I get instead? Awkward service, burnt eggs and some stupid side salad that didn’t come with the advertised ranch dressing. I got two words: Faux. Paux. I have a question: HOW DO YOU SCREW UP EGGS? College kids straight off their mamma’s milk and undocumented nanny’s 3 square meals could have made a better scramble than this.
1st offense: “Can we order coffee?” Oh, we only bring drinks with food. <— how can you call yourself an American Diner??? Not only is that a huge no-no in the American code of service, but that’s just not what a diner is like!
2nd offense: “May I have the eggs benedict?” (mind you, there are 4 different kinds which made up at least 20 percent of the breakfast menù) Um, we don’t have any bread.
??? You ran out of BREAD on a Saturday brunch? Are you guys idiots?
3rd offense: “Okay, I’ll have the western omelette.”
DO YOU NOTICE BREAD, HERE? Yes. They MEANT to say that they did not have English muffins. AND even so- PROBLEM SOLVE IT! Use your people skills and ask me if I mind TOAST as a sub for English Muffins since your kitchen manager is too much of a knob to keep english muffins in stock on a Saturday which make up the essential base of at least 5 menù items!
The omelette was terrible. All the filling slid to the ends and was completely tasteless. I felt like it was like smashing a piñata and having to dig through all the crap candy to find the one piece of (tasteless) cheddar cheese. Almost inedible. But I ate it. Why? Well, I obviously moved to Italy because I wanted to torture myself so what’s a little burnt egg going to do to any remaining dignity I have left? And what the hell was up with this salad and side of hamburger lettuce??? What am I supposed to do with that?
They were busy with other pseudo Americans desiring similar pseudo experiences, I get that. It is not easy to run a business in Italy. But c’mon- you guys really really need to step it up when you’re in a city practically colonized by Americans. It took a lot of akward glances and hand waves to ask for the bill and even longer to get it. I was tempted to leave a penny as a tip for this whole s**** show. So ridiculous. I will probably never return.
Yours in irony, honesty and sassy sarcasm,
p.s. I’m going home for a visit. I may or may not be posting for a while:) Too busy with oysters, bubbly and REAL brunches to bother glueing myself to a computer. Kissesxoxoxo
The availability of ethnic food in even the most international cities like Florence can prove to be a challenge.
Don’t give me that “oh there’s everything in Florence” bit…there is ONE of everything! ONE good Indian restaurant ONE decent Japanese noodle joint..ONE!!!! And, where is the good Mexican food?! With all of the Americans in Florence, Tijuana is as much of a disgrace to Mexican food as Tijuana is to Mexico.
The fact is, the restaurant scene in Florence is very Italian (Tuscan, moreover) centric. Salami boards…the trusty pecorino cheeses, crostini, rustic vegetable and bean soups, roast meats and potatoes, fancy tagliatelle pastas…wild game stews…As amazing as all this is, it starts to become routine after having it every single day. What’s the menu usually like, you ask? Starter of cold cuts, fried bread, cheese…maybe some “edgy” veggie starter like fried eggplant polpette then a pasta and if you’re lucky, a braised or grilled meat. but it’s basically all Italian and all pretty predictable.
Not to mention, most of the stuff you can get at the markets and re-create quite simply (i.e. charcuterie boards, pasta and crostini- no effort). Okay, I get it- it is the best food in the world bla bla bla…but Italian food is a result of several other cultures and sometimes it’s nice to pay gastronomic homage to someone else once in a while.
To prove the local apprehension towards anything not Tuscan, I asked a group of Pratesi for eating advice- they must be able to find great Chinese food since Prato has a giant Chinese population and they were like “noooo noi non mangeremmo mai cinese!!!”
I think this defensiveness towards culinary integration (and immigrant integration for that matter) is slowly changing. I see a lot of Italians showing curiosity for Asian food, international cuisine including Lebanese food as I recently experienced on a lunch visit to Valle dei Cedri in the Santa Croce district.
I picked Valle dei Cedri out of a need for something different and simply because I had passed this place so many times and always said I’d go and never had. General life tip: Try something new, do something you’ve been saying you’ve been wanting to do. Even if it’s as simple as trying a new restaurant.
Suggestion: Order the mixed plate. The sandwich option is decent as well, but not as fun. Reason: The mixed plate has like 8 things on it and feels like a mini-amusement park of flavors. I don’t remember them all (I know, slacker) but it involved the following:
Fatayer- a super crispy phyllo-dough wrapped pastry stuffed with spinach and brimming with traditional Lebanese spices like cardamom, cumin and paprika. Drool….
Rikakat- a sort of savory pastry (like a mini-calzone) filled with lebanese cheese and spiced with parsley, mint and Lebanese spices.
Kebbeh- A very delicious meatball of beef and bulgur (very hearty, wheat groats) that almost seems a little dry but in a good way. Meaning, meatballs are usually fatty and juicy, whereas these meatballs seem like they are made with very fine ground meat and rolled around in fresh spices, bulgur and formed very tightly and then baked. So you bite into a world of exotic spices, textures smells and savory delight.
Then of course, there was a bit of falafel, baba ganoush (a garlic and herbs roasted eggplant dip- amazing!) and hummus. I really really was a huge fan of their eggplant baba ganoush. Ironically, it was probably because they are using Italian grown produce which makes a huge difference from the Lebanese food I’ve had back in Seattle. You indeed, cannot beat Italian agriculture and it’s amazing produce as it comes from some of the best soil (and weather) on earth.
Then the desserts! Honey and butter drenched Baklava, Nammura (a coconut and semolina sweet delight soaked in a honey, rose and citrus syrup called Kater) and Shaibieh which is a sort of noodle dessert laced with a thick custardy pastry cream and dressed in Kater syrup.
I’ve realized something about myself during this small little trip. I rarely go back to the same restaurant twice UNLESS it really really rocks. Bars, yes. If I find a good barman to make a mean Negroni, you’re damn right I’ll be back.
But after looking at the menù again, I think I will have to come back to Valle dei Cedri in Florence and next time it should be for dinner on a weekend. Apparently they have live belly dancing on Fridays and Saturdays. Amazing.
My 1st whole year in food & wine travel is coming to a full circle. So every season I learn about what tours are most popular- and most ideal.
The majority of tours I help with are food and wine related, although it happens when I plan an art tour or cultural sights tour (boring- can we just get to the food and booze already?). Friends used to ask me what were the best tours to take in Italy and I never knew how to respond. So I really love the work I do here because now I feel like I’m learning Italy inside and out.
People also ask when is the best time to come to Italy. In my opinion- it’s anytime! Italy is so festive so every month there is something rich and colorful happening no matter where you find yourself. Even August. It may be empty and hot, but you can explore the streets in a much more unique way in a month where most people are away at their beach house.
So Fall used to be my favorite season when I was a Seattleite, and now I have to say it’s Summer. Fall, however has much more to offer to travelers to Italy in terms of activities. Summer is hot and is good for beach bumming and prosecco spritz in the local, hidden squares of Venice. Fall is good for really learning about Italian traditions when it comes to food and wine. This is a period where harvesting takes place for things like wine grapes, olives, chestnuts and lovely fall produce like kale, persimmons, squashes, MUSHROOMS, white truffles and more.
So in honor of Fall in Italy, I’d like to give my readers some advice on the best tours to consider for any person interested in traveling in Italy:
Truffle Tours-I live in Tuscany so I can only speak personally for amazing truffle tours in Tuscany but I know that Piedmont is also king for Truffle Hunt tours and I most recently learned that Le Marche is home to truffles and there are truffle hunt tours there as well. The great part about truffle hunts is that you get to have a moment outside of the city and really connect with nature and well, food. You get to really see the 360 process from meeting the hunter and the dog and getting to eat some of the truffle you find out in the woods. It’s a super authentic experience (with the right travel planners, ahem.) especially because a good travel planner will book you in to lunch too at a restaurant in a small village that is completely off the beaten path and brings you food so good, you’ll want to cry. Like I do, everyday as an avid eater in Italy . 🙂
Wine Tours-Regions to focus on: Barolo, Chianti Classico and Montalcino. Barolo is the king of Italian wines in my book as I much adore the Nebbiolo grape, and it so happens to be somewhat close to Alba where you can also attend the yearly truffle festival and take a truffle tour, too. Chianti Classico I recommend because it’s so damn pretty with so many colors painting the rolling countryside which you will enjoy even from the window of your vehicle. Montalcino is great because in October they have a wine festival called Montalcino D’Ottobre and the city transforms into a wine fair. The scenery here is simply breathtaking and gorgeous as it sits high up in the Tuscan hills and is a total paradise for food and wine lovers. Wine tours are great all year round, but in the Fall they are especially special because you might be able to taste grapes ripe off the vine, see the harvest and perhaps even attend one of the many harvest festivals that run about.
Trekking Tours- Oh my god, I went on a trek recently through Chianti (Panzano to San Donato, to be exact) and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. The weather is perfect, there are no mosquitos (the bane of my life) and it provides a much needed escape from the city buzzing and smog. Plus!!! All the Fall colors in the forests and wine fields was just simply incredible. I’ve decided- I need to do a trekking tour at least once a week to maintain my sanity (and to justify my wine and cheese habits;)
Gelato Tours– Okay, so with the harvesting of chestnuts and persimmons- gelato gets REALLY good in Florence (where I live). I recently had a Marron Glace and it was omg amazing. So creamy, starchy, caramel-like, slightly bitter and just bursting with nutty fall flavors. Plus, in the summer gelato is like a heat-survival tool. In the Fall, the weather remains slightly warm during the day so your gelato doesn’t melt in like 3 seconds yet it is still very weather appropriate. I love how my favorite gelaterie add fall spices and wild herbs to their artisan concoctions. On a gelato tour, you have the option to make your own gelato and tour the gelato kitchen! I can’t believe how cool my job is.
Cooking Classes- I think it’s so great to take a cooking class in Italy especially in the fall when produce is so abundant and there are some cooking classes that combine market tours with the cooking classes. I highly recommend taking a cooking class in Venice and in Tuscany. Oh hell, actually anywhere. I love when a cooking class booking comes in, as I usually get to be the interpreter (and have an amazing lunch). But also, I get to cook with Americans for the day and it cures my homesickness! It’s super cool since they are obviously curious about Italian cuisine in a country that I love so much. The best of both worlds!
I’m sure there are more, but it would get too long to list them all!
If you are interested in learning more about food and wine tours in Italy, contact me.
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