Formaggio? Prosciutto? Uovo? Cappuccino? “Si, per favore” is the only right answer to these questions coming from the chef. We’re sitting on the veranda of the first floor of a classical Italian building, at a table with Italian holidaymakers.
As we turn yet another swirly corner in the flowing Tuscan landscape, a sign presents itself next to a narrow unpaved driveway. The archives in my brain are rattling and recognise the sign but not the short drive through the pine trees to the property. Excited for the trip down memory lane to this unforgettable holiday location where I’ve spent relaxing days with my parents and sister as well as with the locals spending their summer days by the pool, we drive up the estate. The U-shaped building showing brown stains on its yellow plastered walls on the picture I have of my mum and me in the swimming pool has been given back its original look: the plaster has made way for bricks. The trees lining the path from the main building to the two apartments on the other side of the pool have grown, the grass field behind it still looks natural – a combination of green patches, brown dry spots and uneven polls of tall grass. As we park the car in front of the main entrance, my heart makes a little jump of joy. Right in front of us I see the cute little goats that I will forever associate with our stay at this Tuscan hideaway. Obviously, I’m well aware that these smelly kiddo’s are not the same ones I fed when I was ten years old, but it feels like a confirmation that I will be able to show my partner why this accommodation will always have a special place in my traveler’s heart.
Nadia and Ricardo (the hosts of the accommodation back in 2000) have long left the estate, but we are warmly greeted by Giuliana, an Italian lady in her sixties who doesn’t speak a word of English. She immediately offers us a piece of one of her early morning baking cakes of which the leftovers are stalled out on a classic, dark wooden table. The interior of the common living and dining room is a mix of country and kitsch – curly wooden chairs and chandeliers of deer antlers, and a huge brick fireplace that’s used to heat up the place in winter as well as a culinary instrument for roasting suckling pig on the spit. The offer of helping ourselves to a piece of cake is followed by informing us on the breakfast times and the inquiry if we want to have a seat at tonight’s dinner table. “Si, per favore”.
Our room is shabby in a charming way. Clean, but with crooked tiles, a squeaking bed, and an ancient shower head. The walls of the pool in the yard could do with an update too as they look rather green, but it’s quiet and refreshing and everything I’d hoped to find. We take a photograph of me in the pool with the main building in the background and send it to my parents. They reply by sending a picture from the family holiday album – my mum and me in the same spot, fifteen years earlier.
From the cosy and comfortable estate in Castel San Gimignano we enjoy pleasant rides with open windows, letting the warm summer breeze in. We drive through yellow hills filed with grain and visit world famous and lesser known villages from the Middle Ages. San Gimignano is a must-visit with its many towers (hence the nickname ‘Manhattan of Tuscany) and famous ice cream, but be prepared for the tourist loads that gather on the squares, stairs and in front of the two ice cream sellers confusing the tourists with their signs of ‘best ice cream in the world’. Volterra is a great city to stroll around and treat yourself to some alabaster jewellery or home decoration. Sienna is famous for its grand Plaza del Campo that’s either fully booked for horse racing or taken over by tourists and cameras from all over the world. And if you feel like it, you can also do some shopping here that goes further than souvenirs – I found myself buying beautiful suede peep toe heels no one should ever try wearing on the cobble stone streets of Sienna. Lesser known but all the more lovely to explore at your leisure away from the tourist route is tiny Colle di Valle d’Elsa.
And then imagine all of this with blue skies, bright sunshine and a home cooked meal waiting for you in the evening. At eight o’ clock we join eight other guests at the dining table on the balcony. There’s a young couple from Rome, an elderly couple from Venice, the couples in between their ages brackets come from Perugia and Naples. All are amazed by the beauty of the region – just like I have never visited the tulip fields in the Netherlands these Italians had never visited any of Tuscany’s world famous highlights before. Beyond this topic it becomes more difficult to keep the conversation going. It’s not that they’re not eager to talk, it’s just that they barely know any English and we have no clue what they’re talking about in Italian – only that the melody sounds wonderful. But then comes the food. Giuliana has placed grilled vegetables and cured ham on the table and is now going round with a huge bowl of ricotta to drop a spoonful on each of our plates. I’m very fond of the soft, white cheese but had never thought of eating it on its own – only for filled pasta, cake or dessert. We love it, its coldness and freshness is a treat in the warm summer evening air.
We watch Giuliana as she prepares the following dish in the tiny kitchen. I continue to hope that ‘la Nonna’ will show her face round the corner as I remember with nostalgia the old little lady with her grey hairs stirring the pans with tall wooden spoons. The steamy plate of spaghetti she put down on the middle of the table is a vivid memory to my parents and myself – good olive oil, parsley and the cook’s secret were our introduction to true Italian cuisine: simple and just a few ingredients, but full of taste. Two typical Italian man (type: godfather) had decided that they’d teach me how to properly eat spaghetti. Up until then I had always thought I was the sophisticated kid eating my spaghetti with fork and spoon instead of my friends who’d just cut their spaghetti. The men hold my left hand on my back so that I could only use my right hand to swirl the spaghetti around my fork. Later in the evening they taught my parents how to properly drink Limoncello and Grappa. Vivid memories!
Obviously ‘la Nonna’ is not the one running the kitchen anymore, in fact the kitchen has changed location from one end of the balcony to the other and another classic is being served today: rigatoni con manzo. It’s a delicious dish, and the Chianti Classico from own land perfectly compliments the flavours of the slow-cooked meat and tomato. The ‘al dente’ pasta is followed up by the secondi: veal and potato purée. Dessert is another classic, a classic that my parents brought home from this very same place. Sweet dessert wine with cantucci, crunchy almond cookies. Important: the two are not to be enjoyed alongside each other but simultaneously – dipping the cantucci in the wine and letting it soak up the taste. Then: don’t take a bite but suck the moist cookie first. Truly delicious!
As wine continued to flow during the entire meal, we sit down on the sofa and enjoy the feel and sound of the evening air. We start to fall asleep on each others shoulder but get ourselves to walk the 30 metres to our room. We wake up to another bright and sunny day and make our way to the table we’d left just before we went to bed. Giuliana must have started working in the kitchen already a couple of hours earlier as we’re greeted by the smell of freshly baked cakes. We sit down to indulge ourselves again in Tuscany’s delicacies. Tutto bene? Molto Bene! Formaggio? Prosciutto? Uovo? Cappuccino? “Si, per favore!”