Under the Tuscan Moon

There is a sizzling passion for rural life in the Maremma of Tuscany.

In the town I stayed called Scansano, there’s this one lady and all she does is bake cakes. She is very old, but her brick oven technique is the best, so the cake monopoly in town is all hers. There’s an old poet who lives on a farm, and every time he sees you, he makes up a poem for you on the spot. I didn’t get to meet him, but Marta told me he always always does. There’s also a man name Firenze who I met, and all he does is make sheep’s cheese. Does he ship his pecorino to restaurants around Europe? No. Tuscany? Not even. He only sells within 10 kilometers.

In the center of this storybook of characters beams the medieval village of Scansano, a faraway fairytale kind of place to spend an evening. That is, if your fairytale includes good wine, good food, and enchanting company.

The moment I got off the train in Tuscany and looked Marta Pellegrino in her big blue, sultry, smoky-lined eyes, I knew we were going to be friends. Marta, who owns Antico Casale di Scansano spa resort with her quite adorable parents, was born and raised in Scansano. Marta is the one who told me about and/or introduced me to all these characters. She went to Paris for University, she’s lived for years in other parts of Italy, and she has traveled all over the world, but no matter what, her soul is sewn to the Maremma. With an somewhat-New York disposition (but she would never, EVER live there), a great sense of humor and a passion for traveling solo, Marta has played a leading role in my experience in Tuscany.

One evening, Marta took me out in the main part of Scansano. It went a little something like this:

CAPPUCCINO

First we visited Caffe Dell’Arco for cappuccinos, because for some reason I was falling asleep. Apparently two is never enough. In Italy, you don’t take your coffee to go in a big paper cup. You stand right at the bar and finish off your caffeine. It’s too small to even bother sitting down.

EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL

Then we visited the frantoio, just to see—this isn’t a usual stop for people out in the evening. It’s a big olive press where olive harvesters come to unload bags of fresh olives and turn them into the most reliable Extra Virgin Olive Oil in town. As we walked from one place to the next along the narrow cobblestone streets, Marta seemed to know just about everyone.

MERENDA

Around 5 pm when kids get hungry start to whine about it, there’s a name for what adults feed them: Merenda. It’s a light snack of ham and cheese, salami, bread and nutella, or something of the sort. Merenda has trickled up to adults to keep them from whining too, so for our next stop, that’s exactly what we did.

We visited Marta’s friend Simone, who owns a mini market with everything from laundry detergent and potato chips to gourmet cheeses and fresh cured meats. He prepared some slices of meat and cheese for us, and I prepared to dig in. What I did not prepare for were the anchovies. People in Italy love anchovies. On three separate occasions, this one included, an eating partner has gone into great detail as to what they love about anchovies in a specific dish. It’s one of maybe 5 foods I’m opposed to, but when Marta looked me at me with her big, glossy eyes and said they’re her favorite and I must try it on bread, just this once, I was in no place to argue.

It wasn’t my favorite, but once I started to pretend it was just really salty lox, it was totally fine.

CINQUINO

Afterwards we went back to Caffe Dell’Arco for Cinquino, which is a little shot of wine that folks often get before dinner. It’s cheap and fast, so it’s also a good way to get drunk before you know it, Marta said. This seemed to be the most hopping place in town. Five men sat outside smoking and drinking, and inside there were couples sitting for dinner, people hanging around the bar, even ordering cappuccinos at this hour still.

The woman behind the counter was pregnant, so I’m not sure what she’s still doing in Italy. No wine, no cappuccino, no wine, no cigarettes, limited quantities of olive oil… what did she have left?

After Cinquino we took a stroll around the charming, sepia-lit streets of Scansano. Buildings were chipping away in the most delightful way. Down alleyways you’d look and see stairs going up and stairs going down, leading to someone’s home, or from the looks of it, maybe to nowhere. Marta pointed out her apartment, in the quietest, quanitest little corner you’ve ever seen, overlooking her Maremma.

Although on that Wednesday night in Scansano you could hear a pin drop, Marta told me I’ll have to come back the last week in September; every year there’s a big festival on the streets. Everyone opens up their doors and serves beer and wine and food, and people celebrate drunk on the streets.

Sounds like the Lower East Side, NYC every night if you ask me. Just 3 blocks away. Yet for some reason, I would come all the way back to Tuscany for it in a heartbeat.

Today’s WIN ITALIA Question:

(To win luggage filled with authentic souvenirs from Rome and Tuscany)

What’s your favorite little town in the world?

Spa-rrividerci!

How To Taste Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The Anti-PAM Movement

I was made to solemnly swear off PAM.

It’s embarrassing that the President of an Extra Virgin Olive Oil Association in Tuscany even knows that I use PAM, but I’m a changed woman now. I’ve gained my Virginity. I now know, without a doubt, that fresh pressed, balanced Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the key to brilliant Italian food.

Beauty buffs, as you may know, besides being the healthiest oil to consume, it’s also in many beauty products and spa remedies; Antico Casale di Scansano uses a handful of EVOO-based products at their spa. Marta Pellegrini the owner knows an old legendary woman in Scansano who has put EVOO on her face every day of her life, and now she has no wrinkles.

Olives aren’t just part of the culture in the Maremma of Tuscany. They ARE the culture—that and the Grape. Marta took me to visit the frantoio in Scansano, an olive press shared by the best and biggest olive farmers in town. If you want to make it as an olive farmer in Tuscany, you have to be up picking by 6am, and in the frantoio to press by 6pm. If you don’t press immediately, it’s too late.

Olive farmers are everywhere in the region, and it looks something like this on the side of the road:

To be granted the supreme title of “Extra Virgin,” oil needs to pass a strict acidity test with an Extra Virgin Olive Oil Association. The acidity level must be 0-80 or lower, and the lower the better—in Tuscany they’re around 0-20. It could take weeks to get results back, and something as small as a fly could ruin an entire batch. Look for this Tuscany sticker if you want to get an Olive Oil that passed the test in Tuscany. And beware of imported oils; acidity will change over time if it’s not stored properly, and your oil might not be Extra Virgin by the time it gets to you.

But after acidity, there’s a much more complex way to judge Olive Oil that you can even do yourself with a little practice. The attributes depend upon a lot of factors: ripeness at time of harvest, condition of soil, climate, care, location, etc. I visited the Scansano home of Georgio, president of an EVOO Association, who taught me everything I know about olive oil and schooled my taste buds in discerning light from strong, good from bad.

PREPARE:

To taste Olive Oil properly, you must warm it up to about 68 deg Farenheit, the temperature at which the flavors are at optimal potency. This can be achieved simply by covering your sample and rubbing the cup with your hands for about a minute.

TASTE:

Then, you take a sip of the oil onto your tongue and spread it throughout your mouth, making a backwards “S” sound with your entire mouth to pull it back, then either swallow or spit it out.

JUDGE, 0n a scale of 1-10:

Negative Attributes

Riscaldo – Sourness
Muffa – Mold
Avvinato-inacetito-acido-agro – Feeling like Vinegar
Morchia – Solid at the bottom
Metallico – Metallic
Rnacido – Greasy
Altri – Other

Positive Attributes

Fruttato – Fruity
Amaro – Bitter
Piccante – Chile

With 7 negative categories and only 3 positive ones, it’s basically setting your your olive oil up for failure. A good Extra Virgin Olive Oil will have NONE of the negative attributes, and the 3 positive attributes should line up around the same level on the 1-10 scale.

There are three general strengths of good Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
Light (around 1-3): Good on salads
Medium (around 4-6): Good on fish
Strong (around 7-10): Good on steak
For bread, you’ll want something between medium and strong.

So, an ideal medium olive oil will be about a 5 on fruitiness, a 5 on bitterness, and a 5 on chile-ness.

Catching on?

You might need some practice, but it’s a very fascinating world. If it’s something you’re interested in, try these resources. Extra Virgin Olive Oil could make a great gift for the holidays.

An Extra Virgin Olive Oil tasting kit – “Take an olive oil tour of Italy at home” – www.olioeolivestore.com
The Olive Oil Times – www.oliveoiltimes.com

Also, check your local supermarket to see if they offer any olive oil tastings

You, too, will swear to never use Bertolli or PAM again.

Here I am with Marta, about to fully enjoy a slice of bread with real, fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil and a sprinkle of salt, along with a glass of red wine. Italian doesn’t get simpler than that.

Today’s WIN ITALIA Question:

To win luggage packed with authentic Italian souvenirs – including Extra Virgin Olive Oil!

What do you use most in your kitchen… Extra Virgin Olive Oil? Bertoli? PAM? Butter? I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter?

Spa-rrividerci!

Acquacotta: Soup of Maremma & Terrible Food Shoppers

Last night for dinner at Antico Casale I started with Acquacotta, the traditional soup of rural Maremma region in Tuscany. It’s a tasty mix of foods such as toasted bread, onions, celery, parmesan cheese, white wine, olive oil,  and a few other ingredients, with an egg on top. It originated in the non-culinary hands of frugal Maremma workers, like coalmen who would scrape together any foods they could find, and poor farmers who’d mix together their harvest. They turned it into a mushy, stewy, zuppa, and now chefs all over the place have put their own spin on it.

This description, as originally told to me by resort owner Marta Pelligrini, made me reflect upon my own sad state of refrigerator back home in New York City. If memory serves me correct, I believe there is an onion in there that I’ve been meaning to use. I also have a half loaf of bread (although whole wheat) and a few eggs left from the last time I went food shopping, which doesn’t happen very often. And for some reason I tend to buy celery when I do go, because it’s healthy and I think I’ll end up dipping it in something, but I don’t have dip. So yes, I have celery too. Parmesan cheese? What a novel idea to put it ON TOP something! White wine, obviously. Olive oil, check. Salt… come on, what do you take me for? Toaster oven for the bread, by golly I’ve got that too! This wasn’t just the soup of the Maremma. This was the soup for New Yorkers who are terrible at food shopping.

Here is the recipe from Chef Claudio Bovicelli of Antico Casale di Scansano, the man who taught me how to make pasta from scratch. Even if I never master The Rolling Pin quite the way he hoped, there’s always Acquacotta.

ACQUACOTTA RECIPE:

Ingredients for 4 people
3 ribs of celery, 4 onions, 700 gr. of spinach, 4 eggs, extra virgin olive oil, half a tablespoon of tomato sauce, 4 tomatoes, 8 slices of toasted bread, half a glass of white wine, water, salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese as much as you like.

How to prepare it
Brown an onion in a pan with extra virgin olive oil. When the onion is slightly pinkish, add celery, onions and wine. Let wine evaporate for a few minutes, then add tomato sauce, tomatoes and water. Let it cook for 20 minutes, then add beaten eggs and salt. Toast the slices of bread and place them into the plate. Pour the broth on them. Then sprinkle Parmesan cheese over it.

Today’s WIN ITALIA Question:

(To win luggage filled with souvenirs from Tuscany and Rome)

What’s your secret go-to recipe or concoction when nothing’s left in the fridge?

Spa-rrividerci!

Hakuna Ricotta

“It means no worries…” or “Senza pensieri…” as Timon and Pumbaa sing in Italian. But even Simba knew he would only be convinced when it actually happened. Now, after much anticipation for this visit and having been here two full days, I can safely assure you there are no worries here in the heart of the Tuscan Maremma at Antico Casale di Scansano. Chi vorrà vivrà… In libertà…

So… press play, and read these 16 reasons why being at Antico Casale di Scansano means “Senza pensieri,” and why you, too, would never want to leave your Hakuna Ricotta.

1. You can put on your robe and be at the spa within seconds of deciding it sounds like a good idea.

2. Your food was likely made from ingredients that you can see while eating it.

3. Cantuccini (toasty biscuits made of only sugar, eggs, almonds and butter) dipped Vinsanto (a very sweet dessert wine) are just another way of saying ciao.

4. Eating delicious pasta, then cooking the exact same thing with the chef the next day.

5. Fog doesn’t ruin the view from your veranda.

6. Religion is topped with tomato sauce.

7. It feels like family… because it IS family. The owners live the dream of giving people the Maremma experience they grew up with.

8. This is the last thing you see before walking into your room.

9. It would be unthinkable to have this meal without first having pasta.

10. The indoor pool is a great place to sit and get to know the anatomy of your feet, if you so choose.

11. You can have your bath and eat it too.

12. Massimo would love for you to join.

13. Fagottini stuffed with pear and parmesan cooked with cream and red wine is just Italian for Satchels of Heaven.

14. If you have someone in your life you’re trying to convince that celery is good, this salad with pecorino would help.

15. A bottle of local red by the toasty fireplace in the hills of the Tuscan Maremma is just as good as it sounds.

16. Sun-soaked panoramic views look even better coming straight from a facial.

Today’s WIN ITALIA Question:

(To win luggage packed with souvenirs from Rome and Tuscany)

What’s your Hakuna Matata place?

Spa-rrividerci!

Coffee Scrub and Milk Bath. Spa Dolce Vita

In Italy, when someone offers you coffee or cappuccino, always say yes.

Why? I don’t know, it’s just my gut feeling, but they’re usually teeny-tiny, I haven’t said no since arriving, I’m on my 4th one today, and I have no regrets yet.

It’s actually my 5th, if you include the Coffee Scrub and Milk Bath at the Antico Casale di Scansano Spa, a duo of treatments that sent me into a tranquil afternoon of decadent sweetness.

Before I get into the treatments, let me tell you a little about the spa at Antico Casale di Scansano. Warmly-colored walls and decor are immediately inviting at the Beauty Farm and Wellness Spa, which is right in the middle of all the hotel rooms on the mountain so you can just stroll on over in your robe. The cozy, inviting ambiance is complemented by sleek chairs and beachy touches. It’s the precise mix you’d want in your spa experience under the Tuscan sun.

The spa philosophy of the Antico Casale di Scansano Spa is rooted in the traditions of Maremma, and does a good job of blending them with forward-thinking spa techniques and local products. One of the scrubs is so fresh and local, that it has chunks of grapes in it that would otherwise be served on the dinner table in the form of local Morellino red wine.

The Spa Treatments:
(read the full spa treatment descriptions here)

My treatment began with a body scrub with Coffee and Cardamom. The scrub is made with actual coffee beans that are mixed with almond oil and enriched by the fragrant aroma of cardamom. Black, thick and exfoliating scrub was massaged onto my body, and then I was wrapped in a cocoon to let the oxygenating, vitamin-infused product seep into my skin. The moment I was wrapped up, I fell asleep. A deep sleep too, and I had a dream. I don’t remember what it was, but there’s no way it could have been as good as Masimmo’s, one of the Antico Casale owners, who recently had a dream/nightmare about giant New York skyscrapers chasing after him like Godzilla. He loves New York, but things are a little quieter here in the Maremma. I then showered off the nice strong shower, and was escorted to part 2.

Usually I take milk with my coffee, but this time I took it after.

The milk bath was a warm, relaxing way to turn into a caffè con latte. It was a half hour of solitude (no tweeting from the bathtub) with sweetness for my palate too. It’s fairly obvious I’d be served coffee and milk (and cake!) during my milk bath after my coffee treatment, but the experience of it was even more wholesome than it was ironic. There’s something enlightening about treating your insides the same as you do your outsides, people often forget to do both. It was a good reminder that both are equally deserving of pampering, attention and Tender Loving Caffeine.

And then, after having my bath and eating it too, I headed over to the indoor pool, tipped my chair back to full recline, and fell fast asleep for an hour. Even with all that caffeine, relaxation rose to the top.

Today’s WIN ITALIA Question:

Every country/region has its own unique coffee rituals and culture. What is your personal coffee ritual?

Spa-rrividerci!

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