A single mom and her grown-up daughter take a glorious trip to the Tuscany region of Italy that provides a rich repast for both the body and the soul.
Right before New Year’s Eve, I wrote down my resolutions for 2013. One of them was to go on a trip to Tuscany with my 26-year-old daughter Florentina, who I’ve raised as a single mom since she was in elementary school. I wanted to explore the food, the wine, and most of all the shopping — and for both of us to enjoy some quality mother-daughter time.
The very next day, to my surprise, I receive a phone call from my employer with an offer to take a vacation anywhere I’d like. I said, “Italy would be nice!,” and before I could wrap my head around what just happened, my daughter and I were on a plane to Florence with seven days to explore the wonders of Tuscany — the art, the architecture, the people, the beautiful countryside — and the food. Ask and you shall receive!
Our first introduction to real Italian food was lunch at a charming little trattoria near the center of Florence with a long menu of pizzas and calzones. After a great deal of debate, we settled on a Margherita pizza and an enormous sausage calzone along with some delicious red Chianti served in a carafe. The flavors were so fresh, the aroma so appetizing that amazingly, we had no problem finishing our plates. With our bodies nourished, we set off to feed our souls at the Accademia di Belle Arti to see Michelangelo’s sculpture of David.
The next day we woke up to golden sunshine, brilliant blue skies and a hunger for more adventure! So off we went on our bus tour of Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa. Our handsome and humorous tour guide led us through Siena, Tuscany’s iconic medieval town and then we headed off to San Gimignano, stopping at a gorgeous, restored farm called Fattorio Poggio Alloro where we had a lunch made from produce grown at this organic, sustainable farm. Being a holistic nutrition coach, I was ecstatic.
Just 25 miles from Florence, the farm is situated in green hills with vineyards, olive groves and pastures and a view of San Gimignano. The lunch was served family style, with everyone sitting around two long tables. Four different kinds of organic wines were served, made from grapes grown on the farm. I was impressed to learn that 90 percent of farms in Italy are organic and the wine is non-GMO (made with non-genetically modified organisms).
We started our meal with white wine and delicious antipasto with prosciutto and salami that melted in my mouth. I’ve never tried salami that fresh. It came with delicious salad and bread dipped into basil-infused olive oil and 9-year-old balsamic vinegar, all made on the farm. I was in heaven!
The penne pasta with ragu was made with locally raised beef, fresh tomato sauce and pecorino cheese. Delizioso! To complete the experience, we had a glass of Chianti and Toscana Rosso paired with our meal. For desert, a very special treat: freshly baked almond biscotti dipped into a sweet locally made desert wine — a tasty tradition in Tuscany.
After this body and soul filling lunch we enjoyed the breathtaking views from the farm. Although I’m a city girl, at that moment I didn’t want to leave.
We purchased a bottle of the sweet wine and a box of the almond biscotti, a bottle of grappa (a 100 proof brandy made from grapes), extra virgin olive oil with basil, aged balsamic vinegar and colorful organic whole wheat pasta. I was tempted to buy some organic honey, but was beginning to have concerns about needing to buy another suitcase.
From there we drove to San Gimignano, nicknamed the “Medieval Manhattan” because it’s concentrated into a small area and explored the winding streets that lead to a delightful array of shops. To cap off the day, we paid a visit to the leaning tower of Pisa. After all we’d been eating; we decided to climb up to the top of the tower and were rewarded with views of the Field of Miracles and the Duomo of Pisa, one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture, dating back to the 11th century.
Then it was back to Florence with plans to visit the famous food market, the Mercato Centrale (Central Market), a massive, two-story warehouse off the Piazza San Lorenzo. The market is famous for its fresh meat, smoked sausages, salami, delicious prosciutto, bold pecorino cheese, colorful bowtie and linguini pasta, fragrant spices, dried porcini mushrooms, extra virgin cold pressed olive and truffle oil, aged balsamic vinegar, endless bottles of wines, espresso coffee, and honey from various fruit trees and flowers.
And what is a trip to Italy without gelato? We found gelaterias on every corner, each more tempting then the last. The gelato came in many colors and even more flavors! As a nutrition and health coach, I had to do some research — at least that was my excuse. I wish I had the time to try out every flavor, but there were just too many. My favorite was hazelnut, while Florentina was crazy for the tiramisu favored gelato.
We stumbled across a small restaurant filled with locals and were delighted at the thought that we would now see what it’s really like to have dinner as an Italian. Our gracious waiter offered us water and asked if we would like “water with gas.” My daughter looked befuddled, as she had no idea what was “gas water.” She’d never heard of such a thing. The only thing she associated with gas was her car and her dog — not water. Suddenly it hit her, “Oh, you mean sparkling water, right?”
Being foreigners, we didn’t grasp the concept of primi and secondi dishes. So we thought we would fool everyone by ordering both. For my “primo” I ordered spinach linguine with fresh clams and pesto sauce, while Florentina was chowing down some spaghetti with beef ragu. Then our secondi came, two piping hot pizzas fresh from the oven. One was covered in prosciutto and the other in sausage. Pizza is considered a meal in itself; we didn’t know better and kept stuffing our faces, much to the amazement of our waiter.
I’ve heard so much about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. It’s one of the best to prevent aging, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. So when I got the chance to take a Tuscany-style cooking class, I jumped at the opportunity.
The class was quite large but there were only four people to a workstation, so it was still a personal, hands-on experience. Master Chef Fabrizio taught us his secret ways to chop onions, carrots, eggplants celery and tomatoes, all to prepare a delicious caponata (a cooked vegetable salad made with chopped fried eggplant and celery, capers, and a sweet and sour sauce) topped with homemade croutons.
Then we mixed up a yummy batter for crepes and learned how to flip them over with one wrist motion. The crepes were used to make cannelloni, which we stuffed with ground chicken, veal, spinach and ricotta cheese. The cannelloni were topped with Béchamel and tomato sauce. For the secondo (meat dish), we made turkey breast with aromatic rosemary, parsley, mushrooms and saffron in a white wine sauce.
Of course no Italian meal would be complete without desert so we then learned how to make a simple yet delicious tiramisu.
After two hours of chopping, mixing and cooking, we were ready for dinner. All of us were invited to come downstairs into wine cellar, which was turned into a dining room. We finally got to enjoy the wonderful recipes that we worked so hard to make, and of course, as with every Italian dinner, there were endless bottles of wine.
The trip was over too soon, but as with every trip I take, I try to bring home a lesson learned. This trip taught me to enjoy and savor the intricate flavors of my meals. A dish well made will never need a condiment.
I want to share with you a recipe from the cooking class we took because I want you to enjoy a little taste of Tuscany with me!
Turkey with Herbs and Saffron
500 g turkey, cut into cubes – 17 oz.
300 g white mushrooms – 10.5 oz.
30 g unsalted butter – 1 oz.
2 cloves of garlic
1 -2 branches of rosemary
5 bay leaves
1 small bunch of Italian (flat leaf) parsley
½ cup of flour
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of fresh ground black pepper
6 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil
½ cup white wine
½ tsp. of saffron
½ cup vegetable broth
Dissolve saffron in a glass of hot vegetable broth. Cut the mushrooms into big slices and garlic cloves in half. Chop the parsley. Place in a large nonstick skillet 3 tbsp. of olive oil and a piece of butter and start over medium high heat. Flour the turkey and shake extra flour off. Place turkey into the pan, and brown it, while turning it.
In another pan, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Once browned, add it to the turkey and deglaze with white wine, let evaporate, and then add the broth with saffron and bay leaves. Continue cooking for 1—15 minutes more covered. Add water or broth if necessary. Remove the herbs before serving and garnish with the parsley.