Thanksgiving and celebrating the harvest
In few countries, gastronomy is connected to seasons like in Italy. The farming customs, the strong connection with nature as well as the family and ritual oriented culture, have helped create a lasting bond between flavours and emotions.
One of the most suggestive seasons is undoubtedly autumn, This season marks a crucial transition. After two seasons living in the fields, in the open air, from sowing to harvest, everything suddenly changes. Products are different, fireplaces are lit, family gathers together and while outside the leaves turn yellow and the sky turns grey, old stories, legends and fairy tales are told around the fire. For children as well as for adults, the crackling fire hides a delicious surprise: roast chestnuts. This is the season for cooking chestnuts on burning fire, allowing their skin to brown, wrapping them in a cotton cloth, like a blanket and peeling them, burning one's fingers a little.
There is always a cooking pot on the fire and one of the ingredients was a fruit with summer colours: the pumpkin. Thanks to its sweet and chestnut-like flavour, it was a good base for restoring soups and these two ingredients were often mixed together to create some sweetish and familiar pasta. This tradition is revived every year.
Very different traditions meet up in the same ritual. In the United States for instance, Thanksgiving Day dates back when the Pilgrim Fathers gathered in the city of Plymouth to give thanks for the harvest. In this holiday, just like in Italy, the pumpkin reigns, as well as traditional turkey. While there is a commitment, also present in Italian celebrations, that strongly bonds this holiday to autumn and to the ritual of harvest: it is inconceivable to celebrate at the restaurant.
Thanksgiving Day is related to the traditional gathering of the family that give thanks to what nature has given in the moment of taking stock, when the harvesting is done and, whatever the result might have been, if family can gather together and eat, the year has been successful.
Are you looking for some interesting dishes to celebrate this beautiful season and enjoy Thanksgiving? Tuscookany chefs have the following suggestions: Franco Palandra - our Italian chef at Torre del Tartufo – recommends Guinea fowl with Jerusalem artichokes, grapes and chestnuts. Laura Giusti – our Italian and Mediterranean chef and the author of the Tuscookany cookbook "The flavours of Tuscany" – thinks Pumpkin soup and Pumpkin nut bread would be great for your thanksgiving table, while Paola Baccetti – the Tuscookany Italian chef at Casa Ombuto – suggests Maltagliati with pumpkin, leek sauce and chestnut flour.
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Photo: "The flavours of Tuscany" Antipasto page 34 Bruschetta with Porcini mushrooms and garlic bread
What are Porcini Mushrooms and when were they discovered?
Probably the finest mushrooms you will ever eat, you can call them porcini (if you are in Italy -which actually means piglets) penny buns (if you live in England) or cèpes (if you live in France), but one thing will never change, it doesn’t matter where you are: they are absolutely delicious. As the Tuscookany chefs confirm, porcini mushrooms are one of the symbols of the beautiful Tuscan autumn that turns the last few months of the year into a celebration of smells and colors. The fungus was first described by Pierre Bulliard, a French botanist, towards the end of the 18th century - more precisely, around 1782: the year is dangerously close to the date of the French Revolution, but apparently the famous porcini didn’t play a significant role in that particular occasion, or at least none that we know of. Besides being a French “discovery”, penny buns are easy to find across the Northern Hemisphere. Still, here is an interesting curiosity: these mushrooms were only recently introduced in the Southern Hemisphere, and it certainly wasn’t a natural occurrence
Where can you find Porcini mushrooms?
Whoever crosses the Italian borders can’t fail to notice the love the inhabitants of the peninsula feel for the mushrooms that grow naturally in the woods, under beeches, oaks, pine and chestnut trees when the leaves turn yellow and red. In Tuscany, in the weekly markets of small and big towns, it is quite impossible not to encounter the aroma of porcini during in the fall. And if autumn is not your season, you will find them throughout the year dried and carefully sealed in bags to preserve their qualities.
How to prepare Porcini mushrooms?
The taste of these mushrooms, with notes of hazelnut and a smoked touch, is considered by the Tuscans and by the Tuscookany chefs as a real treat. Cook them with pasta, sauces, soups, pan-fried or grilled with butter for on Bruschetta (toasted bread), the result will always be a masterpiece that will conquer the spaces of your home and soul with its unmistakable scent.
You can enjoy them as the main ingredient of a warm soup, combined with seasonal vegetables to complete a dish that expresses all the flavors of a Tuscan autumn - and as the Tuscookany experience will teach you, choosing organic, local, seasonal ingredients is the best way to live a healthy life and treat yourself with recipes that reflect not only your mood but also the landscape that surrounds you. You can also mix them with legumes and herbs to create a perfectly balanced and highly nutritious meal that can comfort you and your guests with its earthy embrace. And what about a serving of pappardelle with porcini mushrooms? An unforgettable first course for a special dinner with the person you love. Open your mind and let your taste guide you through the flavors of this enchanting season in one of the most wonderful regions of our planet, Tuscany.
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Did you know this about Tuscan pecorino cheese?
As the Tuscookany’s chefs will confirm, the Tuscan pecorino is an incomparable cheese, with a unique character that makes it recognizable among any other dairy products: a masterpiece made with ewe's milk. Plus, it has a very long history, a tale sculpted in the landscapes of the region where the Tuscookany’s villas welcome all the travellers who love good food.
According to some records, it dates back to the Etruscans and its ancient name was "cacio marzolino" (March cheese). It was called so because its production started right in March. Probably women passed down the recipe of this fine cheese because, in a late 18th Century's record of Francesco Mulinelli, it is stated that the girls to be married brought a dowry of how to make this precious pecorino to their new family. Changes had occurred over the years because of improvements and scientific developments, yet pecorino's flavor still now comes from a traditional production that brings back to that first cheese traded by the Etruscans.
Other regions in Italy have their Pecorinos too, but the Tuscan one has a unique history and it's a main ingredient of all regional cuisine: this is why our chefs love to use it and to introduce its wonderful taste to all our guests. There are basically two types of pecorino cheese: the fresh one, that is soft and maturated for at least 20 days, and the aged one, whose maturation time is at least of 120 days. Compared to pecorinos of bordering regions (Umbria and Lazio), the Tuscan one is characterized by its peculiar sweetness and personality that discloses gradually. It tastes clean, yet slighlty flavour, sour, spicy and astringent. The whole thing in a dry, not sticky and rather crumbly bulk. Thanks to its organoleptic properties, Pecorino is a very balanced cheese, with a strong yet gentle character, with no undesired peaks and easy to pair.
Speaking of pairings, "cheese bread and wine" has been the most ancient combination and the main sustenance for farmers and peasants over many centuries. Here are some ideal wines to pair with fresh Tuscan Pecorino: white Parrina, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Bianco di Pitigliano, and for aged Tuscan Pecorino you can choose between Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano or Morellino di Scansano. Pecorino is very good, as well as with wine and bread - the Tuscan bread being with almost no salt at all - also with honey, mixed berries jam and, in order to enhance its spicy taste, even with chilli jam. Soft and young pecorino is delicious if eaten with dried tomatoes, because they can enhance its flavour that is not too much high and its astringent notes.
Even the rounded flavour of nuts can be perfectly paired with this extraordinary cheese; a delicious and easy to make recipe, in fact, mixes homemade fresh pasta, nuts, excellent Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, pepper and parsley. In this recipe, you must grate the cheese, chop the nuts, add parsley, salt and pepper and mix it all with the oil so to get an extraordinary creamy sauce to put on the pasta.
A curious anecdote says that on St. Anthony's Day crosses were marked in the stamps, by using some boughs, so that a cross would remain impressed in every wheel of cheese in honour of the Saint Protector of animals. You can still find some cheeses with this particular mark.
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Photo by Tuscookany cookbook "The flavours of Tuscany" page 142
La Bistecca Fiorentina! The queen of the steaks
Literally “fiorentina” means “from Firenze”. This is arguably one of the cornerstones of the Tuscan culinary traditions, and that’s why our Tuscookany chefs choose it as one of the key dishes when a special occasion comes around – like the welcoming dinner of every cooking course here at Tuscookany!
The origin of this recipe - which is really not complicated at all, as long as you have the right cut of meat - are unknown. What is known, however, is that the people of Florence have been enjoying this bistecca for at least 600 years.
In order to cook it, you need a 2 1/2 to 3 inch-thick porterhouse, cut from the rear end of the short loin, that weighs no less than 600 to 800 grams (t-bone included) and comes from a Maremmana or Chianina oxen. Seasoned with salt, pepper and a touch of olive oil, the juicy steak is cooked on a charcoal grill for no more than 5 minutes per side. Some people like to brush it with a branch of rosemary while it cooks. Simple and tender, it is paradise on earth for the Tuscan meat lovers. Enjoy it with a glass of local wine: a combination you must taste during your trip across Tuscany.
It is said that la Bistecca Fiorentina was already famous when the Medici family was in town. For those of who don’t know, we are talking about the family many historians consider the beating heart of the Italian Renaissance. “I was here when the Renaissance flourished, and I was born in the city where the Renaissance was conceived”, this is what la Bistecca Fiorentina could say. Not a bad answer to the classic “where are you from” question, wouldn’t you agree?
Here is a curiosity. Do you know where the Italian word “bistecca” comes from? From the Latin? No. From some ancient obscure language? Not at all. It comes from the English beefsteak! Now, why would the Italians use an English term to label one of their culinary masterpieces? Well, let me explain. On the 10th of August, the people of Florence come together for the famous Festa di San Lorenzo. This festa has been organized for centuries around the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which is one of the oldest - and one of the most beautiful - churches in Florence.
What happens during this wonderful feast? Apart from the religious celebrations, San Lorenzo means free food. And you know what people cook on that day? Yes, precisely: la Bistecca Fiorentina. It is said that once upon a time (we don’t know exactly when) a group of English rich men was in Florence precisely on the 10th of August. These gentlemen loved meat and they did nothing but asking for “beefsteak” all night. The people of Florence, after that evening, decided to take “beefsteak” and turn it into “bistecca”.
For some reason, I’ve always like this story... maybe because I adore this “beefsteak”! By the way, don’t call it “Fiorentina”, if you can, because that’s also the name of the football team of the city. It’s not a big deal, of course, I am pretty sure people will understand you anyway if you are in a restaurant. However, remember: Bistecca Fiorentina (or Bistecca alla Fiorentina) is the proper name of this juicy culinary masterpiece.
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Cantucci and Vin Santo- a heavenly combination which is made at Tuscookany and savored after dinner.
Photo by Tuscookany cookbook "The flavours of Tuscany" page 206
Cantucci and Vin Santo- a heavenly combination which is made at Tuscookany and savored after dinner.
The delicious Cantucci are fragrant little treats made of flour, eggs, pine nuts and almonds. They are the kings of the Italian biscotti, the representation par excellence of our love for the sweet, crunchy notes that make life worth living. Some people believe the “original” recipe of the modern Cantucci was conceived in the charming city of Prato. What we know for sure it that they are the product of ancient Tuscan traditions. Like it often happens in the Italian peninsula, where the most famous dishes come from the kitchen of the poor villagers, every recipe handed down from generation to generation has its own little variation: a personal touch, a secret ingredient, a pinch of something special grandma added because she loved it too much. That’s why some people make Cantucci with acacia honey while others choose orange blossom honey, and there are families who believe you just can’t make the real Tuscan Cantucci without sugar. My grandma always used butter and I adored her Cantucci and their soft heart, but I know many families who like them dry and rustic, and even use whole, unpeeled almonds to underline the rough texture, the perfect companion for the sweetness of the classic Vin Santo. At Tuscookany, all our chefs have their own special Cantucci recipe, and they are all delicious.
Talking about Vin Santo (literally, Holy Wine), this sweet ambrosia has an equally long story behind its sweet notes. According to an ancient legend, during the year when the Black Death invaded Italy (in 1348) a Dominican friar distributed a beverage to the victims of the terrible plague, a wine, precisely, telling them it was a miraculous drink, a holy liquid. Maybe, however, the name of this mystical wine comes for the season when the grapes were traditionally collected and the wine bottled, November, which is the month of the Saints. Whatever the truth is, the Vin Santo is velvety like a liquor, inebriating, with a lingering nutty aroma. At the end of the meal, dipping homemade Cantucci, which are crunchy and rich in nutty notes – thanks to the almonds, in a glass of classic Vin Santo it’s a celebration of a perfect contrast that creates a unique, unmistakable harmony.
This wine is great also with Italian cheese and salty recipes, which is surprisingly another element that brings Vin Santo and Cantucci together. The famous Tuscan treats, in fact, used to be cut from bread and toasted, and they were basically salty. Almonds became part of the recipe later and in the eighteenth century honey arrived, which finally turned them into a charming dessert that was both simple and refreshing. Sugar and honey functioned also as preservatives, a quality that allowed the Tuscan villagers to package and share their invention. That’s how the Cantucci entered the taverns, where travellers coming from all over Europe met their crunchiness and fell in love with them.
The Cantucci are little cookies, but it is important to underline the erroneous use of the word “biscotti”, which in the United States (and in each and every Starbucks on Earth) is used to label the classic Tuscan dessert. The word biscotto comes from the Latin panis biscotus, which means bread that was cooked twice. Historically, in fact, just like it happened with the Cantucci, many bread-based recipes used to be toasted, which made them crunchy and more durable. Then, the name began to be used to indicate little dry desserts made with sugar, honey, flour and other ingredients. However, in Italy the term biscotti doesn’t indicate a single recipe, but it is an almost perfect translation of the American cookie. This said, the fact that our Cantucci have been somehow mistaken for the representation of an entire category, the Italian biscotti, is a clear sign of their deliciousness!
The Cantucci are irresistible. In fact, Franco (the chef of the Tuscookany Italian cookery course at Torre del Tartufo) always knows where the owners have been: he just has to follow the empty cookie jars! The Vin Santo/Cantucci combination, however, carries with it also an anecdote and an important lesson. Like the count Ugo Contini Bonacossi used to say, the sweet binomial reminds us to respect the table where we sit to enjoy our dinner and lunch. Those who are unable to slow down, meditate, and taste their food, the Italian way to have a nice meal, will end up greedily dipping the Cantucci in the wine. In doing so, they will ruin the holy beverage with crumbles and pieces of almonds. As any proud Tuscan can confirm, this is a sacrilegious crime that forces the guest to drink Vin Santo soiled with pieces of cookie. If you respect both wine and cookies, however, you learn to cultivate your patience, slow down, touch the wine quickly with the Cantucci, wait enough time to let the cookie absorb the liquid and then enjoy the triumph of taste. This is how a masterpiece should be enjoyed: slowly and carefully.
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Tuscookany chose Val d’Orcia for the location of Bellorcia – a Unesco World Heritage Site
Close your eyes and let beauty conquer your thoughts. Imagine a canvas made of rolling hills, trees and blue sky, and add the most beautiful Italian villa, all wrapped in colors and aromas that whisper ancient sonnets. The perfect portrait of a Tuscan landscape, a magnificent triumph of Italian culture: this is the place where Tuscookany welcomes her guests, offering an experience nobody can forget. Bellorcia is a dream come true for all those who want to experience the magic of cooking and eating together in Italy in the breathtaking Val d’Orcia.
Not far from Siena, Bellorcia belongs to the mythical Val d’Orcia, which was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 2004. Using the words you can also find on the UNESCO website, “the Val d’Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times,” a place where mankind and nature come together to produce the most exquisite harmony. A unique universe that follows the rhythm and the colors of the seasons; a paradise that is both aesthetically majestic and perfectly functional, defined by grain, vines, cypress and olive trees, and shaped by merchants and artists, who have been in love with the valley since the 14th century.
The many archaeological remains suggest the Val d’Orcia met our species in prehistoric times, and flourished under the guidance of Etruscan and Roman civilizations. As a matter of fact, it is still possible to walk down the historic Via Cassia, which connects Siena to Rome, an ancient consular road able to carry visitors and tourists to a dimension beyond time and space. Crossing the famous Via Cassia means also re-tracing the famous Via Francigena, a mystical path that religious pilgrims from all over Europe sanctified with their steps throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, as they walked from Canterbury to Rome; a precious route for the rich merchants who entered Tuscany and crossed our Val d’Orcia and the entire region to reach the Eternal City.
Besides its beauty, the Val d’Orcia offers a variety of curiosities and delicious treats. For instance, in the valley, a real connoisseur can discover some of the most sublime wines he will ever encounter, such as the legendary Brunello di Montalcino, the Rosso Orcia and the delicious Nobile di Montepulciano. And if you find yourself needing to taste pure relaxation with a touch of historic beauty, you can always visit the thermal baths of the region, including Bagno Vignoni and the gorgeous Bagni di San Filippo. Plus, of course, you can always spend a beautiful day in one of the ancient abbeys and castles, with all their ghosts and legends. Or you can simply lose yourself in your own senses as you contemplate landscapes and little towns: the perfect expression of beauty made in Italy.
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The famous pasta is one of the oldest food products in the history of humanity. For the Italians, la pasta has been vital for centuries: it is the food of the poor and the rich, the basis of almost every meal. Its history began when human beings left their nomadic lives and became sedentary, discovered wheat and learned how to grind it, turn it into flour and use it. It existed millennia before Christ. In fact, both Etruscans and Greeks used it, and even Cicero spoke about it in his writings. And when the Romans created their empire, la pasta conquered the world.
The Romans discovered in desert areas they captured in Northern Africa that wheat could be perfectly preserved if the flour is kneaded and then dried in the sun. Thus, in the sunny climate of Liguria, Campania and Sicily la pasta was left in the Sun, and then exported to the Northern regions of the peninsula. Combined with lentils or other legumes, it was a complete, perfect meal. Of course, back then la pasta still lacked its ideal groom, the tomato, which arrived in Italy from Peru in 1554 and began to be widely cultivated only in the 17th century.
The Italian creativity expresses itself in the most different forms, colours and types of pasta. Basically, they are thousands, designed for the most varied dishes. This said, the Italians have pretty broad categories for their pasta, organized around shapes, lengths and dimensions: paste lunghe, pasta in nidi, pasta a tubo, corta, minuta, ripiena e irregolare. Within these categories, there are also other specialties, like the egg pasta or the one made with special semolina. You can learn to make it grandmother-style at Tuscookany, rolling it out by hand and making many types and fillings—also traditional Tuscan fillings. Often la pasta is meant to absorb delicious, imaginative sauces, while some other times it constitutes a full meal thanks to the richness of its ingredients. Wonderful examples of the latter category are the famous passatelli, rough spaghettoni made with eggs, cheese, nutmeg and bread crumbs. Simple and tasty, they are cooked quickly in delicious broth and served hot: a festive, comforting meal.
The Italian pasta, perhaps the most popular food in the world, is often prepared incorrectly outside the Bel Paese. No doubts about it: some of the most common mistakes are shocking for the Italians, who believe cooking la pasta is almost a sacred dish. For instance, each and every Italian could easily consider the popular noodles-ketchup duo a crime. Another nightmarish recipe is the ragú Bolognese-spaghetti combination: in the capital city of this recipe, Bologna, the dish is served strictly with tagliatelle. Then, there are those who add salt before the water begins to boil, and others who add oil to the water: these practices are banned in Italy. La pasta has to be cooked al dente, drained when it is still crispy, and it can’t be cooled under cold water, because it would lose its flavour and the starch needed to aggregate the sauce. And, of course, la pasta is never served as a side dish: it's a first course or a main course. The only exception is the pilaf rice, which is accompanied by the delicious ossobuco. Plus, nobody in Italy would ever dream about adding meat or meatballs to the pasta (like you see in the animated classic Lady and the Tramp). The inhabitants of the beautiful planet do not forgive these widespread horrors, and the reason resides in the sacredness of la pasta and its ingredients: a magic, ancient ritual.
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Photo: Tuscookany cookbook "The flavours of Tuscany" page 214
Torta della Nonna, made at Tuscookany from our Grandmothers recipes
A sweet miracle: homemade pastry, vanilla scented custard and a surprising layer of pine nuts and sugar… Ask anyone to name a traditional, homemade dessert and “torta della nonna” (Granny’s cake), a much-loved Tuscan favourite, is sure to be mentioned. Its crispy, melt-in-your-mouth crumbliness makes it the queen of harmonious contrasts. It has a beautifully balanced flavour, which more than justifies its claim to fame, a classic of the Italian cuisine.
Each and every top cook has his own secret recipe, handed down from his or her grandmother, and the chefs of Tuscookany are no exception to this rule. The results speak for themselves: an exquisite combination of simplicity and tradition… it will be hard for you to find something similar elsewhere.
Whilst its long history is well established, the exact origins of this culinary delight are shrouded in mystery, and there are many contenders for the role of original inventors. For instance, there are those who claim it was the result of a bet made by chef Guido Samorini, who wanted to surprise some of his customers who had been demanding for some time something completely new. Samorini ran a restaurant in the present-day location of the San Lorenzo market in Florence, and decided to create a dessert that would surprise God himself with its delicate simplicity. The cake was an enormous success, and the Chef secretly passed on the treasured recipe to one of his pupils. This is what the legend says.
Pellegrino Artusi, the great writer and food critic, however, indirectly denies the story. In fact, in one of his books he described what would appear to be the very same dish, at an earlier point in time.
One thing is certain: this is one of those sweet miracles that can be described as “comfort food”, and therefore it could hardly be better named: it’s homely, simple, tasty and delicate, and its aroma brings you a deep sense of comfort… like the one you feel at your grandma’s home. This is why many people believe that, regardless of the bet made by Samorini, this dessert has that homemade quality that only a grandmother can bring to the table: a special homemade touch that comes from combining love and tradition.
And if it existed before its appearance in a Florentine restaurant, like Artusi would appear to prove, who is to say that Samorini didn’t get his idea from a traditional winter dessert he had as a child, a sweet melody usually accompanied by one of those children’s stories that Italian grandmothers tell so well?
Nevertheless, now the recipe is passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters, with endless expert variations and secret ingredients, together with traditional popular suggestions, like the famous “you should never make a custard during the menstruation period because otherwise you will end up with some curdled custard”. An old superstition, one that has been handed down in secret, from woman to woman through generations, just like the recipe of the Tuscans’ favourite dessert: la torta della nonna.