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. Our foodie trip to indulge ourselves in Tuscany has just started.
A trip down memory lane
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. I recognise the sign but not the short drive through the pine trees to the property.
I am incredibly excited about this trip down memory lane. Many years ago, I have spent an unforgettable holiday here with my parents and sister. We shared dinners with the locals and spend summer days by the pool.
On the picture I have of my mum and me in the swimming pool, the walls of the main building are covered in yellow plaster and brown stains. Driving up to the U-shaped building now, I notice that the building has been given back its original look: the plaster has made way for bricks.
The trees that line 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 same. 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 still, 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 traveller’s heart.
Nadia and Ricardo (the hosts of the accommodation back in 2000) have long left the estate. 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. The leftovers from breakfast are temptingly presented 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 adorn the room. A huge brick fireplace that is used to heat up the place in winter, is set up with the spit used for roasting suckling pig.
The offer of helping ourselves to a piece of cake is followed by information on the breakfast times and the inquiry if we want to have a seat at tonight’s dinner table. “Si, per favore”.
Shabby but cosy
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 the pool is quiet and refreshing and everything I had hoped to find.
My partners takes a photograph of me in the pool with the main building in the background and sends 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.
Tuscan road trip
From the cosy and comfortable estate in Castel San Gimignano we enjoy pleasant rides. We drive with the windows down to let the comfortably warm summer breeze in. The road leads us through yellow hills filled with grain to world famous and lesser known villages.
San Gimignano is one of the famous but small Tuscan villages that is a must-visit. Its many towers dating back from the from the Middle Ages have earned the town the nickname ‘Manhattan of Tuscany’. Besides its towers, the town is famous for its ice cream. On the main square two ice cream sellers try their best to confuse tourists with their signs of ‘best ice cream in the world’. My advice: have an ice cream from one shop, enjoy a stroll around the old city walls, and buy another ice cream from the other shop.
Volterra has both Etruscan and Roman heritage. It is a beautiful town that houses architecture from the Middle Ages, Tuscany’s oldest city hall and a red and white marbled cathedral. The city also holds the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, and is famous for its alabaster craftmanship. So to top off a lovely day visit you can treat yourself to some alabaster jewellery or home decoration.
Sienna is famous for its grand Plaza del Campo that is either fully booked for horse racing or taken over by tourists 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.
Colle di Valle d’Elsa
Lesser known but all the more lovely to explore at your leisure away from the tourist route is tiny Colle di Valle d’Elsa. You’ll have seen everything in just an hour, but that is precisely why you should visit.
Dinner in Tuscany
At eight o’ clock in the evening we join eight other guests at the dining table of our Tuscan accommodation. There is a young couple from Rome and elderly couple from Venice. Two other middle-aged couples are from Perugia and Naples.
All of them 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 the topic of sightseeing Tuscany it becomes more difficult to keep the conversation going. It is not because they are not eager to talk. But they barely know any English and we have no clue what they’re talking about in Italian. Although the melody sounds wonderful.
Then comes the food. Giuliana has placed grilled vegetables and cured ham on the table. She is now going round the table with a huge bowl of ricotta to drop a spoonful on each of our plates. Although I am a big fan of the soft, white cheese I had never considered eating it on its own. I only use it to stuff pasta, or for cake or dessert. But this is heaven. The coldness and freshness of the ricotta is a treat in the warm summer evening air.
A trip down memory lane
We watch Giuliana as she prepares the next dish in the tiny kitchen. I continue to hope that ‘la Nonna’ will show her face around the corner. I remember with nostalgia the old little grey-haired lady stirring the pans with tall wooden spoons some fifteen years ago. The steamy plate of spaghetti she put down on the middle of the table back then 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 family man) had decided that they had to teach me – then 10 years old – how to properly eat spaghetti. Up until then I had always thought I was the sophisticated kid eating my spaghetti with fork and spoon. My friends would always just cut their spaghetti with a knife. But that was not good enough for these gentleman. 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!
A classic Italian dish
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. Tonight, another classic Italian dish is being served: rigatoni con manzo.
The pasta is served with a glass of Chianti Classico from their own land. Its flavours perfectly compliments the those of the slow-cooked meat and tomato. The ‘al dente’ pasta is followed up by the secondi: veal and potato purée. Dessert is another feast, 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. You have to dip the cantucci in the wine and let 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.
The good life under the Tuscan sun
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!”