After a few days of dining in Florence, Italy on formaggie e salumi, Cinghiale in umido (boar stew) and pasta ripiena (stuffed pasta) our bellies were so full of rich delicious foods that we found ourselves shopping from the market, Mercato Centrale, more and more on fresh fruits, simple cheeses, and small handfuls of nuts.
Our stay back in February, in the historic city of Florence was coming to an end. We enjoyed the many rich sights of this lovely city as well as indulged in the rich delights of the cuisine.
As we packed our suitcases, we rekindled the enjoyable memories of the wine tastings, cheese sampling, and gelato spooning on the remarkable Taste Florence food tour, hosted by lovely Toni.
Our suitcases were bulging a bit more now as we stuffed them with new Italian scarves and thick cashmere shawls. A dark chocolate brown leather satchel was destined as a birthday gift for Madeleine and a sophisticated cashmere black and grey dress scarf and smart leather watch was tucked into the suitcase for Riley.
We didn't fret for too long over leaving our marvelous experience in Florence because we were on our way to accepting an opportunity to be hosted by Sarah Fioroni at a cozy tucked away agriturismo farm in Tuscany, Italy called...Fattoria Poggio Alloro
Two years ago, I was kindly asked by Sarah's editor if I would like to review her newly published cook book A Family Farm in Tuscany. I do get several emails a month to review cookbooks. More than often, I politely decline due to time constraints, but Sarah's book broke through the clutter of cookbook review and product review requests. And how thrilled was I when I stopped and took the time to slow down and delve into her family story of migration, hard work, and family dedication.
|Ingredients for delicious hearty Steak Diane|
From the first page on, I was captivated by Sarah's family story in Italy. Page after page of beautiful photography and wonderfully simple family recipes captured my romantic vision of life on a Tuscan farm. After suffering during WWII, as struggling tenant farmers, Sarah's relatives migrated to the Tuscan region, worked the land tirelessly, saved their earnings meticulously, and slowly purchased parcels of farmland until they could operate independently.
|Wintery scenery crossing the Apennine Mountains in central Italy|
So, we retraced our steps to the Florence Airport, or Aeroporto di Firenze, in order to pick up a rental car. The lady at the counter very patiently and kindly explained to us that it would be mandatory that weekend to rent snow chains to put on our tiny powder blue Fiat.
"Snow chains?" we queried with crinkled up chin expressions of simultaneous disbelief and curious amusement.
With an abrupt mental screech, the images of the lush green gentle hills of Tuscany, known for endless undulating vineyards, tall pointed and stately cypress trees, and short silver-blue stout olive trees, seemed to poof into thin air as we tried to imagine ourselves pulled over the side of the road struggling to attach snow chains to our rental car.
|Life around the farm at Poggio Alloro|
Apparently, it had snowed the night before up in the Appenine Mountains. We would need to cross this mountain range in order to slip down into the more verdant Tuscan hills. We tried to suppress our rather cynical response as we politely refused the snow chain offer, but the wide eyed legitimate concern of the rental car agent convinced us that we would regret it if those snow chains didn't accompany our journey.
Minutes later, trundling along with snow chains successfully stowed in they tiny trunk of the little fiat, we headed towards Sarah's family farm. Following signs to Siena, we climbed higher and higher towards obviously white snow capped mountains. The weather turned chilly and our little naked tires began to crunch through about an inch of icy snow.
But we were hardened New Hampshire-ites at this point, right? What was a few scrappy inches of snow in Tuscany? Well, hardened might be a bit of an exaggeration if given a moment to ruminate the definition of the word. We had at least ....er...two months...give or take... of 5 foot snow fall shoveling under our belts in New Hampshire.
We glanced at the snow chains resting peacefully in the back seat and began a reluctant conversation on the best method for attaching them to the tires.
Thankfully the snow chains weren't necessary. We did just fine. They rested comfortingly in the back seat. In fact, we were mesmerized by the expansive countryside in late winter. On the hillsides, scraggily black vineyards stretched outwards as far as the eye could see. Snow gently fell in between each row forming neat little white lines that paralleled one another like a pin striped suit. The sky was wild with streaky cloud formations that were pulled and stretched by the gusty winds. We pulled over into a little slip of land near a stretch of vineyard and got out of the car to take in the scenery around us...so different from the typical description of the Tuscan countryside. The mood was solemn. Everything was quiet. The world seemed to be in the midst of a deep breath before exhaling.
|Sarah Fioroni's Fattoria Poggio Alloro: fresh eggs, sausages, and hillsides of rosemary|
We continued along, following signs towards the bubbly sounding town of Poggibonsi then drove further south as the air warmed up again and the snow faded from view, towards the direction of San Gimignano.
We spotted the tiny little sideways sign saying CASAGLIA/REMIGNOLI and before we knew it we were rolling into the gravel drive of Poggio Alloro...Sarah Fioroni's Tuscan family farm. We were less than an hour from bustling Florence, but we felt world's away.
Sarah and I had actually met each other a year earlier in Houston, Texas. I was engrossed by her cookbook and family story. As I stood over my stove preparing her family's recipe for saffron infused risotto, I couldn't help but day dream of what life must be like on her family's farm.
An email arrived in my inbox announcing that she would be on a cooking tour in the U.S. Houston, Texas would be one of her stops on the tour! How serendipitous! We arranged a brief meeting on the day she was in Houston. I drove over to the cooking demonstration and was tickled to meet Sarah in person. She was every bit as warm and gracious as she came across in her cookbook. We left with the parting words of how wonderful it would be to meet next time at her farm in Italy.
|Many of Sarah's family are still working and caring for the everyday activities on the farm|
So here I was! But, now having just moved to New Hampshire and living on our own little farm in New England. Sarah and I decided to connect again and I looked forward to experiencing and writing about her life in Italy.
Her farm was honestly every bit as I had imagined. When we arrived, Sarah was tucked away in the greeting room arranging the booking details and daily arrangements that come with life on an agriturismo farm.
A lively brown and white Jack Russell terrier trotted into the main entryway of the farm making a bee line straight to Sarah. Completely used to strangers, she made her rounds greeting us with her swishing tail and winning over our affections within seconds. Behind her, two miniature pups bound over each other into the room in search of their mother. Sarah's terrier had puppies recently. We were delightfully greeted by the adorably clumsy puppies falling over one another as they nipped and tackled each other... Cappucino and Luigi.
It takes seconds after arrival on Sarah's family farm to be diverted by the most incredible views. From Poggio Alloro across the expansive valley, one hillside overlapping another hillside perfectly frames the ancient fortified city of San Gimignano in the distance.
Because we arrived close to sunset, the area that stretched gracefully in front of us to the east was glowing with the light cast from the setting sun behind us in the west. The towers of San Gimignano were lit up like jewels as they capped one rolling green hill after another leading all the way to the valley below Sarah's farm that seemed to scoop right up to the terrance where we were standing.
We all stood for awhile, taking in the fresh air, the cool winds, and the glorious views as the puppies scampered and rolled around our feet. Sarah's face was filled with as much pride as our faces were filled with unabashed awe of the perfectly situated location of this farm.
Sarah mentioned how fortunate that we arrived that day because the crew was busy bottling, labeling, and packing boxes of wine in the cellars. We walked past the chicken coop and alongside a trail of rosemary bushes to approach a large structure where whizzing sounds and clinking noises could faintly be heard within.
|Countryside scenes around the Fattoria Poggio Alloro farm area|
Some family members...uncles and cousins of Sarah...were busy lining up empty wine bottles on a small conveyor belt. The bottles would be filled with red wine and then continue their clattering journey a bit farther where a label would be applied. After corks and caps were fastened, the bottles would be plucked from the conveyor belt and neatly arranged in padded boxes for delivery to customers.
As Sarah explained how her family planted vineyards on their land and has tended them for several decades, I couldn't help divert my attention to the views outside the windows of the little factory. As the bottles are bumping along and the family was whisking them into boxes, the view out of the large windows was just breathtaking. What a place to work, for goodness sake! These bottles have some of the most spectacular views.
Sarah left us to wander the farm leisurely arranging to meet up again for breakfast the next morning. We wandered over to the barns. Once Sarah's ancestors purchased the land, they raised the barn here and began to acquire beautiful white Chianina cattle. The cows were resting comfortably in the barn on beds of straw. There were several babies born recently and the mothers gently worked their way in between us and the babies to quietly protect them from strangers like us. The light filtering into the barn was beautiful and it almost appeared that the white cows were softly glowing in the evening light.
|Fattoria Poggio Alloro in Tuscany, Italy|
After visiting the chicken yard and the pig pen, we called it a night. I could hardly digest that I was transported from the pages of Sarah's cookbook and family story all the way to her family farm in reality...all the way to Tuscany, Italy.
|Early morning mist settling into the valleys below the farm|
Without hesitation, I slipped right out of bed at sunrise the next morning. I eagerly anticipated that spectacular view we saw from the night before and could only imagine what it would look like in the soft morning light.
It was like looking at different variations of smooth thick velvet. The hills overlapped one another so beautifully and gracefully. In the distance they seemed to transition right into the faded blues of the early morning light. Veils of soft white mist rested in between the hills as if a bride was running along with her veil flowing out behind her crowned head.
|Quiet and Solemn San Gimignano in off season|
I could not get enough of this view. Early morning sounds of life could be heard on the farm. Someone was shuffling across the courtyard towards the barns. I faintly heard someone else rustling around in the kitchen preparing for the morning breakfast.
But for the most part, the air was soft and gentle. The world was quiet and serene. Scents of rosemary intermingled with the smoke coming from the breakfast room as I stood overlooking a scene that would sear into my memory for years to come.
|View of San Gimignano from Sarah Fioroni's family farm in Tuscany|
Breakfast! My favorite meal of the day! I am an early morning riser because first, I love the peace and quiet of the morning hours but second, I love the aromas and pungent smell of bread baking and coffee brewing.
And breakfast on the farm did not disappoint. We made plans to drive over the hills and wander around San Gimignano but that would have to wait. We crossed the paved courtyard and pulled open the heavy wooden door to the breakfast room. A huge fireplace was crackling and sputtering in the stone fireplace.
Hanging on the sides of the fireplace, we noticed slabs of prosciutto drying in the smoky interior. The room was rustic, masculine, and comforting. The large chunky country farm tables were lined in cheery red and yellow table clothes. Plates of pastries and breads were on the table. A side table offered cheese and yogurts, cereals and juices. Sarah's aunt greeted us warmly and then went off to whisk some fresh eggs. The most creamy platter of scrambled eggs arrived minutes later at the table hot and delicious.
Patrick and I made up our minds right then that our kitchen renovation back in New Hampshire should have a stone fireplace somewhere in it. It probably wouldn't be as big as the one in Poggio Alloro, but we are indeed now designing a field stone grey fireplace in our own New England farmhouse kitchen.
The town of San Gimignano is about 20 minutes across the valley from Poggio Alloro. The town is a delightful excursion from the farm. It is completely fortified by a huge thick wall so we parked the car and walked up through the towering gates into the village.
Since it was still off season, the town was peaceful and sleepy. The last time we visited this wonderful Italian village, we shuffled along with thousands of other tourists through the winding streets. This time, the atmosphere was entirely different. The few couples there strolled aimlessly hand in hand. The mood was lovely and romantic. We stopped at a little deli and bought freshly sliced pork sandwiches on thick crusty Italian bread.
The windy cobbled streets that off shoot from the main road going into the village lead to some of the most spectacular views of the valleys below. It wasn't hard at all to imagine life here centuries ago since the town was so empty of signs of modern day tourism. We stood at the top of San Gimignano and just listened to the wind sweep across the valleys as winter was turning over gracefully to spring.
|Sarah's father, always busy in one area of the farm to the next...getting the spring garden ready|
Back at the farm, it was a delight to follow Sarah's father around the farm as he went about his daily chores. From getting the spring gardens ready by carefully measuring the distance in between his plantings to working in the kitchen to ready to day's pork roast wrapped in seasoning and scented with freshly picked rosemary. This delicious dish would be on the luncheon table in the big fireplace adorned dining room.
But it was the evening dinner that night that left such an indelible mark on our memories of this trip to a Tuscan farm. We were invited to dinner at the big wooden farmhouse tables. Sarah's father would be grilling their signature Florentine steaks right there in the huge open fireplace. We walked across the courtyard anticipating a night filled with local flavor.
The chatter of local guests could be heard as laughter mingled with the smokiness of the air as the fires were lit for the BBQ. When we entered the room it was filled with about 12 people from near and far.
The long tables were scattered with platters of salumi, cheese, vegetables, and finger foods to accompany the steaks. Bottles of red as well as white wines produced from the farm's vineyards anchored the table.
Sarah's father emerged from the kitchen carrying a huge cutting board piled with the biggest steaks we had ever seen. He deftly stoked the fire to ensure that it was hot and fiery.
Each steak was salted and peppered before being placed on a grill right over the crackling fire. The mood in the room was convivial and cheery as all eyes watched and smelled the delicious meat cooking and sputtering over the flames. The smoky aromas filled the dining room with the succulent fragrance of grilled steak.
After a few minutes...and I mean just a few minutes on each side...the steaks were whisked back onto the cutting board to rest. Generous slices were cut and each table received a piping hot plank of just grilled Florentinian steak.
|Scenes overlooking the Tuscan hillsides at Poggio Alloro|
Outside the farmhouse, the sun was setting and throwing the most spectacular oranges and tawny yellows across the darkening landscape of the Tuscan hills. The fire glowed equally beautifully from within the warm room as we all laughed and enjoyed the bountiful goods from this family farm in Italy.
The puppies appeared at the door looking positively delighted by the fact that the room was filled with adoring fans. A few steak bones were presented to each little puppy. After everyone had their turn cuddling the puppies and cooing over their adorable antics, they were gently shooed outside again each with a bone in his mouth. They ran off with their little steak bones to gnaw on in peace overlooking the dramatic sunset taking place beyond them. Little do these pups know the years of hard work this family endured in order to provide this spectacular home, bountiful gardens of olive trees and vegetables, livestock, and vineyards for winemaking.
Patrick and I are immensely grateful to have enjoyed a taste of this family's offerings. We were delighted to travel from the pages of Sarah's well written book to the reality of their farm in Tuscany. I have a feeling we might meet up again someday. I hope it is soon. Perhaps a family gathering at our little farm in New Hampshire one day.
I would prepare this Steak Diane for Sarah and her family if they visited us here in New England. The mushrooms, roasted garlic, shallots, and mustard are all flavors I think they would like accompanying a grilled piece of steak.
From one farm in the U.S. to another in Italy...we say...
grazie per una meravigliosa visita!