After climbing into a minivan at Peretola, the airport in Florence, our driver Filippo expertly navigated the road toward the Casale di Valle, a 15th century hunting lodge set among vineyards in Tuscany, the place that was to be the home of the DaVinci Storytellers for the next week, I struggled to keep my eyes open. I didn’t want to miss my first-ever glimpse of the Tuscan countryside. Toscana! And I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing out of the window was real.
My eyes were bleary and my head felt fuzzy, like the fleece blanket wadded up in my tote bag, which I’d hoped would be just the comfy thing I needed (along with an eye pillow) to help me sleep during my overnight flight. I never sleep on planes – or trains and automobiles for that matter – and this time was no exception.
Was I dreaming? Up until now, this vista of rolling land, patchworked with vineyards, distant rows of cypresses and ancient stucco farmhouses had always been just that – a beautiful series of images stored up in mind from studying art, books and photographs.
Every day I found myself in awe of the landscape, over and over again. While exploring vineyards, walled medieval towns and simply just looking out the window of my room in the Casale, it was all around me, like some kind of idyllic scenic backdrop. Later in the week, I stood in front of Renaissance masterpieces and there was the exact same landscape; captured in paint along with the magical golden light and shifting colors of the endless sky. It’s hard not to use the words “untouched” and “timeless” when searching for a way to describe this place, but that’s really what it’s like.
As we arrived at the Casale it seemed so serene it was hard to believe that just the day before, the area had endured a tromba d’aria, a “whirlwind” that had uprooted trees, broken windows and, according to Carolina, our tour guide and translator, also lifted roofs from some of the surrounding homes. The grape harvest was in progress, and there were areas where vineyards sustained some visible damage as well.
My first meal together with my fellow Storytellers – Jennifer, Celeste and Kristin – was outdoors on the canvas-covered patio of the Casale. It was our introduction to the warm hospitality and food lovingly prepared by the Casale cook, Ana and her assistant Franco, a treat we were to enjoy during our entire stay.
We were welcomed with simple crostini drizzled with olive oil and topped with chopped, ripe local tomato; platters of sliced salami, prosciutto, and wedges of pecorino. For dinner we were served wood-oven grilled chicken, pork and sausages, grilled vegetables and farro salad. Dessert was a simple plate of assorted biscotti and gelato.
And wine, of course! It was just the beginning of an amazing week of food and wine, every meal accompanied by DaVinci wines produced from the land all around us.
We spent a lot of time with the DaVinci family of winemakers, agronomists and grape growers, learning how their lives revolve around sometimes unpredictable cycles of nature throughout every season; tending the land, plants and fruit every step of the way, year after year. We walked through the vineyards where grapes for Chianti are cultivated, and were each handed a pair of pruners for a hands-on lesson in grape harvesting.
As we walked through the rows of vines, we noticed the texture of the cracked soil, a mixture of clay, sand and bits of fossilized seashells, which mineralize the soil and add a dimension of character and flavor to the grapes “like salt seasons the pasta water,” as winemaker Andrea Meini put it. Another day we toured the Cantine Leonardo DaVinci winery in Montalcino, just in time to see Sangiovese Grosso grapes being harvested for one of the noblest of all red wines, Brunello di Montalcino.
It starts with the wine, and doesn’t end there. It’s a way of life. What struck me most about being at the table in Tuscany was that everything on it most likely comes from that place, and is enjoyed in season.
Lucky for us, our late September visit coincided deliciously with foods like porcini mushrooms, tomatoes and an array of fall fruits. There was a pappa al pomodoro, a Tuscan-style fresh tomato and bread soup, one day for lunch that I’m still thinking about, and chartreuse-green figs with insides like luscious, red jam that made me realize I’d never really tasted a perfectly ripe fig in my life.
I was inspired by colors; of the sky, earth and trees and impressed by how harmoniously the villages and towns blend into the environment. The natural tones of umber, clay and stone are used for the materials in the architecture; like brown sandstone, terracotta, gray slate and marble.
Oh, and the many shades of green. The edible foliage around the Casale, both wild and cultivated, is a cook’s dream: bay laurel shrubs, big old rosemary bushes, and pomegranate, lemon and olive trees. It made me hungry! Check out my recipe for Tuscan Brined Pork Chops, inspired by the sensory natural landscape.
Reflecting back on my experience just a few months ago, I feel it’s become a part of me, that I actually physically soaked up a bit of the essence of Tuscany. Drinking the wine, savoring the food and taking in the astounding natural beauty connected me to a rich source of tradition, history and culture that have endured for so many centuries and continues to this day.