Italian Mediterranean Diet – the healthy way of living
By Franco Palandra- chef at Tuscookany – Cooking vacations in Tuscany
Do you realise how healthy an Italian Mediterranean diet is? The Italian cuisine is typically Mediterranean which entails eating a lot of vegetable, fruit, cereal, fish and in particular white meat.
In addition the most important element is the fact that the Italian use olive oil for cooking in large amounts instead of animal fat. Olive oil helps to clean the coronary tracts and this, combined with a high volume of coloured vegetables, prevents disease. Furthermore the Italians take heed to follow nature and only eat what is in season. It’s not only tastier but if you eat according to the season you will be eating a variation of different coloured vegetables. Each different colour has a different antioxidant, which helps prevent diseases including cancer.
Dr. Ancel Keys was one of the pioneers to promote the Italian Mediterranean diet. He was the inventor of the K ratio for soldiers. He studied the eating habits of the Italians in the South of Italy during the 2nd world war. He was surprised to discover how much older Italians became compared to other European countries and questioned this. He studied their life style and eating habits and came to the conclusion that the Italian Mediterranean diet was the reason. Their diet lengthened their life without any side effects..
Another important “secret” is the Italian social life. Eating is a communion of sharing food between the family, celebrating events like the harvest of the main vegetables like wheat, olives and grapes. These events are like a big party for the whole community, dancing and eating. Sharing those happy moments together gives healthy “pills” to the brain and fights depression. Even the daily market visits create a good mood when the mama’s meet each other, sharing gossip, recipes, or bargaining with the traders.
There is an expression that foreigners often use to describe Italians: Italians don’t eat to live but live to eat and this is so true! For us Italians we will always find an excuse to celebrate with food and wine.
In the sixties and seventies the Mediterranean diet changed due to the economical boom and people started to have a better life and associated the Mediterranean diet more with poor people. Fortunately now many Italians are going back to the traditional Mediterranean diet as they realise that this is a better and healthier lifestyle.
There are big differences between the Italian food in the North and South and it comes together in Tuscany, in the middle of the country, which takes the best of both North and South hence the wonderful Tuscan cuisine with influences from both regions.
At the Tuscookany cooking courses we inspire our guests to cook Italian style, with the Italian colours, spices and oils. Doing this with joy and sharing the food that we have prepared at dinner with a good glass of wine surrounded with beautiful scenery of Tuscany and great company.
What else can I say, there is no diet like Mediterranean in the world, you can follow any other diet for any reason, but this cannot be done for years, there will always be some side effects that will cause the body to suffer, but the Mediterranean diet can be done all your life.
Ancel Keys is the proof. He passed away at the age of 101!3 comments | Add comment
Tuscookany and Olive Oil.
Virgin olive oil is one of the few man made products that have remained uniquely unchanged through the centuries: The technique has existed with out rectification for over 6.000 years.
Virgin olive oil has particular qualities in comparison to all vegetal oils and animal fats as it is extracted from the fruit rather than the seed.
It seems that the origin of olive oil can be traced back to Armenia and Turkestan, before reaching the Mediterranean area. Remains of olive-presses have been discovered in Palestine, dating back to 4.000 BC.
Olive trees are cultivated throughout the island of Crete in 2.500 b.C. where an ancient ware house has been discovered containing eight hundred thousand liters of oil. This oil would have been used as a reserve against famine years or readiness for export.
For Greeks, olive oil was sacred, and to this day it is still forbidden to uproot olive trees. Due to the mild climate there are trees in Greece that are hundreds of years old. In Greece olive oil is the basic ingredient for cooking and is used today as it has been for thousand of years.
Romans discovered olive oil during their conquest, and it quickly became an irreplaceable ingredient in the dishes. Ippocrate, was one of the first recorded people to realize and promote the health giving properties of olive oil, and it is Plinio who said "olive oil and wine are two liquids good for the human body".During the middle Ages the largest producers of olive oil were the monasteries, and fortress-farms in Tuscany.
But by the 12th century, an important change came about in agriculture. Isolated farms came together in villages protected by walls. These urban centers created a social and economic revolution that created a desire to eat better and thus coincide with a rise in the demand for olive oil.
The 16th and 17th centuries in Italy were a time of wars and disorders, this bought about a crisis in olive oil production. Olive trees remained under cultivation only with in the Tuscan region.
It is during the 18th century that we see a considerable increase in the demand for and production of olive oil. During this period Italian olive oil was internationally recognized as the finest available and was exported to England, Belgium, France, Russia and Germany.
During the 19th century, considering the continuous increase in the market, olive groves appeared up and down the coasts and over most of the hills of central and southern Italy. By the end of the century, out of 97 provinces of Italy, 67 were cultivating olive trees.
By 1950's a wave of thought spread through the western world contesting the health giving properties of olive oil, despite its connotations as peasant food.
In United States, in the 1960's a study conducted by Ancel Keys statistically proved that poorer persons in the Mediterranean area were not affected by cardiovascular disease.
During a visit in Greece and Italy, Ancel Keys, noticed that considering the high consumption of fat (mainly olive oil) the rate of cholesterol and cardiovascular disease is very low.
The Mediterranean diet began to gain popularity and olive oil sales and production have been increasing ever since. At Tuscookany the Tuscan Olive Oil is one of the most important ingredient for nearly all the recipes that are tougth by our Tuscookany chefs.
Tuscookany Cooking School
By Jeannette Anne Davey
We arrived at the site of the Tuscookany Cooking School after playing what felt like our own version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. We had an overnight flight from the US to Rome, a train from Rome to Arezzo then a taxi ride that culminated in an interesting climb up a steep gravel road to get to Torre del Tartufo (Tower of the Truffles) in Chiaveretto, Italy.
After a very informal check-in process, we were shown to our rooms which far exceeded our expectations. We were in our own little 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom villa which included a living room complete with fireplace and kitchenette area.
We had a small orientation and tour of the grounds (large solar heated swimming pool, wood heated hot tub, sauna, steam room, gardens, laundry facility) followed by dinner. By the end of the night I counted 51 bottles on the table. I never knew so many liqueurs existed (artichoke liqueur, anyone?!?) At 11pm, although the party was still going strong, we were about to drop and called it a night.
Monday started with breakfast (which we almost missed as the beds were so comfy we slept until 9am!) then a stroll around the grounds followed by lunch.
After lunch, Chef Franco (who has been the chef here since it opened 9 years ago) handed out aprons (which had our names on them) and gave us a tour of the kitchen. We looked in every drawer to know where things were and instructed to remember it all. Basically we just got familiar with the workings of the kitchen. We were divided into 4 groups (appetizer, pasta, main course and dessert). Each day we will make a different part of the meal so by week’s end we will have done one of each. We were also put in teams which change every day so by the end of the week we will have worked with everyone here.
The group of 13 participants (6 from Canada and 7 from the US) varied widely in experience and expertise. Everything from those who had attended several cooking schools before to a husband who came with his wife and admitted that he doesn’t cook, he was just here for the wine! Franco seemed to be able to be in 4 places at once, somehow keeping complete control over every team at all times. He had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and was able to assign tasks which fit our abilities.
We learned a lot (did you know if you wet and wring out parchment paper it will mold itself into a cake pan perfectly?) but mostly we had fun. Franco understands that we aren’t here to become professional chefs, it’s a cooking vacation.
At dinner, as each course was served, the responsible team members were toasted, cheered and complimented on their portion of the meal. The wine flowed freely and the liqueurs came out once again.
The other cooking days were much the same with breakfast, some time to enjoy the villa and grounds, lunch, cooking class and a party atmosphere at dinner again toasting and complimenting the cooks as each course was served.
One of the most interesting things about the school was how much what we made was influenced by the season. We cooked dishes based on what Franco could get locally as well as what we could pick right there on the grounds. For example, we made a cake with figs but 2 weeks ago the same cake was being made with berries, two weeks later it would be made with apples. We made sweet focaccia from the grapes growing over the table. There was a full herb garden where we would pick what we needed to season our dishes and all the truffles came from the property (thus the name).
We had a culinary tour one day which took us to a vineyard for wine tasting, an olive oil making facility (more tasting and lunch), a textile factory and a goat farm where we were tasting again, this time different varieties of goat cheese.
We had one free day. Some people choose to stay at the villa. Our group took the train into Florence for the day. That evening everyone came together for a dinner of leftovers from what we had cooked earlier in the week.
The staff could not do enough for us and really made us feel like Torre del Tartufo was our home, if even just for a week. Although admittedly, most of us don’t have someone at home washing the dishes as fast as we can dirty them and constantly cleaning up after us. That was a nice treat!
Some of what we made:
Squash Tart: Eggplant Pudding:
(Fig) Farmer Cake with Rosemary Gelato:
Pizza :(we each made our own then cooked it in the wood fired oven)
Beef in Red Wine with Smashed Cauliflower:
Semifreddo di Zabaione & Vin Santo:
Wild Boar Stew:
(just in case you are wondering if it really was wild, the people cleaning the boar found buckshot in it!)
Octopus: Pumpkin Ravioli:
Swordfish stuffed Squash: Rack of Lamb:
Soft Cake with Cream of Ricotta: Tiramisu:1 comment | Add comment
When you see a truffle, you can’t help but wonder what the big deal about it is. It’s often described as knobby looking potato and yet, it is this visually unappealing truffle that is considered the diamond of the culinary world. What is it about this clump of dirt that has people scrambling over themselves to get their hands on it? Considering the fact that even the smallest amounts of it, cost a small fortune, here are a couple of things you might want to know about truffles before you try its aroma.
A truffle is a fungus.
A truffle is a fungus, plain and simple. It usually grows under Oak, Birch, Pine, Hazel trees. They are usually found underground and need to be ‘hunted’. Truffles are widely grown in forested areas of Europe, North Africa, Middle East and North America. At Torre del Tartufo we have 2 Hectare (5 Acre) of truffle fields.
Types of Truffles
There are two main types of truffles, Black Truffles and White Truffles. White truffles are slightly more sought after and expensive than the black truffles, because they are a little rarer to find that the black ones.
Truffle season is usually from November through March. Black Summer truffles can also be found in July.
Cutlivation | Harvest | Truffle Hunting.
Have you ever heard of the phrase, an expensive mistake. There could not be a better example than in the case of truffle harvesting. Collecting them requires experience and training. Hunters prefer to use dogs or hogs to help sniff out the truffle without damaging it. The only real danger here is of the hogs eating the truffles! Some of the more inexperienced truffle hunters tend to use rakes, where they rake out the truffles from their hidden spots, but in this case sometimes the immature truffles are also raked out, reducing the quality.
Truffle hunting has become quite the tourist attraction these days. In Torre del Tartufo we try to have a truffle hunt once a week when we have the cooking classes in Tuscany.
Be sure to use the truffles on the same day and no later than the third day after you get them , lest they lose their wonderful earthy flavour.
Truffles can be used in several forms, like truffle salt, truffle oil, truffle Vodka, however, there is nothing to compare to using it in all its fungus glory. One should never try to cook white truffles, because it causes the truffles to lose their flavour under heat and are much better off as shavings. With Black truffles however, you can afford to cook it (bare minimum cooking, mind you).
Would you believe that people travel all over the world just to see and buy something that often resembles a clump of dirt? Believe it. Here are some of the festivals,in the Tuscany area which celebrate this culinary royalty.
San Giovanni d’Asso: This Tuscan Truffle Festival takes place during the second and third weeks of November. A cluster of stalls selling white truffles as well as food stalls and restaurants selling food infused with truffles. As simple as it may sound, it is definitely an experience of a life time.
San Miniato Truffle Festival: San Miniato is a small town in the province of Pisa, in the Tuscany region in the lower Arno Valley. 25% of Italy’s truffle production happens in this area and it only makes sense that there is a special festival to celebrate all things truffle. A group tents with a beautiful duomo serving as the backdrop, this festival is a dream come true for all food lovers. From full truffle to olive oil infused with truffles. Restaurants pop up purely to make some amazing food to showcase truffles. It’s a truffle dream come true. This festival happens in the second, third and fourth weekends of November.0 comments | Add comment
So here we are in the beautiful Val d’Orcia at our newest villa Bellorcia, the season is definitely Autumn but with the sun shining it is still warm enough for us to have lunch outside. Just light the fire and put another layer on.
The Tuscookany students have been cooking up a storm this week. We have a class of 10 all of whom are great cooks, so we are all in a spin and busy busy busy cooking extra dishes, you can picture the scene. Only one man in our group but he is standing his ground and Laura of course is making sure he gets her extra special attention.
Laura and I went to introduce ourselves to the local butcher, fishmonger and grocer in preparation for next years supplies here at Bellorcia. Big mistake! Huge! We came back loaded with fresh local and seasonal products and plenty of new ideas for the students to make even more recipes. Of course they loved it, sleeves rolled up and just got stuck in. Fantastic.
This is my absolute favorite time of year. The gold and browns, bold bright oranges with bronzy brassy russets and magnificent shades of reds, purples, pinks and green. An abundance of dried flower seeds, reeds, grasses and pods, pomegranates and nuts, all from the garden trees and acorns from majestic ancient oaks, together with orange, yellow and red berries from Pyracantha and from other shrubs that I have not seen before but together, form fabulous displays. Then of course your eye catches something unusual and unexpectedly violet blue, followed by bright yellow Dalia’s and still some surviving sunflowers added to the mix.
We are a little early for Halloween but wanted to celebrate the season and the wonderful harvest from the land so I felt completely inspired to dress our dinner table with carved pumpkins, gourds and unusual squashes all under candle light. Usually our tables are dressed with elegance to complement the food and beautiful villas and landscapes, but this one was just for fun!
A really nice afternoon or morning drive is to the heady heights of Radicofani which sits high above us, overlooking Bellorcia. On a clear day, you can spot the landmark Tower Truglia and Bellorcia from here. Then follow the road down and up, to a succession of charming little towns and villages, such as Bagni San Fillipo, Bagno Vignnoni, Campiglia d’Orcia, Castilone d’Orcia and ending up at the bustling little town of San Quirico, filled with boutique and other individual shops. Quite a surprise. At some points along these routes you catch up with parts of the famous Via Francigena. The original pilgrim route that began in Canterbury, England and continues all the way to Rome.
Continue along the Vino Strada between Pienza and Montepulciano which takes you along the top rim of the Val d’Orcia. Beautiful and typical Tuscan views stretching right across wherever you look. You will not be able to resist to pass without stopping at least a few times to take pictures of the panorama. If you have ever read a book or seen pictures of Tuscany, no doubt you will recognize some of these infamous sights. I have to mention Monte Amiata which continues to be your backdrop as you travel through the valley. Amazing and so beautiful, I can’t describe just how stunning this area is.
Can’t wait to return in Spring next year but for now I will be going back to Poppi and catch up with Casa Ombuto to complete the rest of the cooking courses for 2013.0 comments | Add comment
Tuscookany, thank you! You have gifted me with a deep love of buttered pork, rosemary focaccia bathed in olive oil, glasses full of rich brunello and creamy limoncello tiramisu. I have spent mornings walking through cool mist and spider-webbed wild flowers, afternoons rested in the sun by huge terra-cotta potted lavender, and evenings in a wild Italian cooking-fueled-passion in your cavernous kitchen. Paula "hai il mio cuore" I will return. Ciao!
The flavours of Tuscany
80 traditional and non-traditional recipes
Not just a recipe book, but a genuine overview of Tuscany's culinary history and culture, a journey in images through photographs taken specifically by expert photographers.
The volume includes recipes but also dishes enhanced by the creative touch of the Tuscookany chefs who carefully selected and wrote them with valuable tips on the wine pairings with local wines.
You never know why, who or what might happen at Francescos Olive oil Farm when we stop for lunch.
Today, as you can see Francesco is wearning his hawaiin outfit- and wearing it very well, I hope you all agree.
Sometimes lost in translation…. but never dull, he is such a colourful character.
His family have been in this house since 1421 and so to celebate their forthcoming 600 year anniversary in 2021, Francesco is already planning a huge party , which by the way, you , and I think just about the whole of Tuscany are invited to……….. watch this space on Tuscookany’s website or page.
We all sit under his tree and his mother Enza and lovely wife Olivia cook for us. A traditional Tuscan style lunch with homemade pasta, followed by desert of fresh fruit of figs and plums or whatever is available from his or his neighbours orchards. Followed by grappa, of course.
I am really looking forward to olive harvest time at Francescos. All the locals with olive trees, bring their olives for pressing for the oil. Bring your own or pick them from his trees. Then press, add some centrifugal force and voilà!! . ( don’t know that in Italian) you walk away with your own olive oil. Fantastico!
The only problem is and I have been warned, the wine and grappa are very free flowing. The harvest season is very much treated as a fiesta, a celebration, so whether or not I actrually get any olive oil or just end up getting totally sloshed and talking rubbish Italian with the locals, we shall see……………..no difference there then!0 comments | Add comment
In our organic vegetable garden at Casa Ombuto cooking school in Tuscany we have so many baby Aubergine, masses of chilies and this year has also been a bumper crop for zucchini. In a couple of weeks we will have hazelnuts, walnuts, fennel bulb and figs of course. Can’t wait for those, I can almost taste them now!!
But at the moment we have tomatoes coming out of our ears. They are so sweet and absolutely delicious. We eat them for lunch, thickly sliced like a steak or just as they are, straight from the basket that just keeps on being filled up .
Beautiful. Too many for even us to eat, so Chef Paola has been kept busy making and bottling tomato sauces for the winter.0 comments | Add comment
Our culinary tour at Tuscookany, takes us to a few local and traditional places.
I don’t want to give too much away- but the last destination on our culinary tour is always the goat farm, Formaggi di Capra in the Vallee de Mezze. Firstly we meet Brent , a Michigan born dairy farmer with a great sense of humour. Seen here with his cheese and posing with his favorite (but don’t tell the others) goat.
He came to Tuscany 23 years ago for a holiday and ended up staying and running his own farm and is kept very busy during the Summer making cheese and looking after his farm.
As you can see in the picture the goats are very well looked after. Brent wouldn’t show you his kitchen but he Is very proud of his barn!!
The goats always show off to the visitors, mostly hand reared and bottle fed and so think of Brent and the other volunteers as mom. Ahhh! They are really fun with mischievous personalities- the goats I mean not the volunteers and always make us laugh.
We are able to sample a selection of fresh and aged cheese that are available. Always different in flavour , due to the time of year and the food available to the goats in the local fields and forests. They are taken out to pasture twice daily and largely left to roam, although they never go too far from Brent. The neighbors encourage them onto their land, as sadly there are now no other animals around the area. Consequently some days the goats will have eaten chestnut and olive leaves and the next, it could have been the neighbors roses, which of course, contributes to the flavour of the milk and cheese !!
Brent hopes to see you soon on a culinary tour0 comments | Add comment