Bonnie Aeschliman: Farm-fresh food a highlight on trip to Tuscany

06/19/2013 7:15 AM

06/19/2013 7:15 AM

When I organized a culinary and historic tour to Tuscany, I knew it would be a fabulous adventure.

All the important components were in place — lodging would be in an 18th-century restored farmhouse in Cortona, Tuscany. We would unpack and settle in there for a week with day trips to the medieval villages and historic areas, and of course we would visit the wineries, learn about olive oils and various cheeses and participate in a couple of cooking classes.

The setting and agenda were perfect, but what really made the tour a memorable experience was the people. All were from Kansas except one very funny gal from Stillwater who quickly earned the nickname “Oklahoma.” What a fabulous group of people — not a single complainer in the group! As we traveled together and experienced the wondrous sights, sounds, smells and unparalleled beauty of the countryside, we became friends as we learned about the country, its people and its culture and shared its food and wine.

Each evening we gathered around the table at the farmhouse, where dinner was prepared for us, and rehashed and reveled in the day’s experiences.

Adding to the fun was a young Italian guide who possessed a delightful sense of humor and entertained us with historical and cultural tidbits as we were driven to our various destinations. He quickly became an integral part of our group.

Each day was a different adventure. Perhaps one of the most memorable days was our visit to a small farm outside one of the villages where goats and sheep were raised. The owners had purchased the land 20 years earlier when they were quite young and had a passion for the land. In addition to their gardens, they had a herd of 127 sheep. They milked the sheep twice a day. Of course, being a farm gal, I wanted to know how that was done. They explained the sheep were all milked by hand because hand milking was better for the sheep. It was a task that had to be done twice a day and took about two hours.

Pecorino cheese, or sheep’s milk cheese, was one of the major products they produced on the farm. We learned there are many more forms of pecorino cheese than pecorino Romano, the one we normally see in our local stores. But we tasted varieties that were very different. Some were fresh with a soft texture. Some were aged a short time and others for many months. Aging affects the texture and taste of the cheeses. Fresh cheeses and those aged for a short time have a softer texture; longer aging produces a drier texture and sharper flavor. Our host gave us a great tour of the cheese-making area and showed us many types of cheeses in various stages of production.

The high point of the day was the beautiful lunch they prepared for our group. Underneath a huge grape arbor, long tables were set overlooking the most magnificent valley with the Tuscan hills in the background. It is difficult to determine which was the most memorable — the Tuscany vista or the farm-fresh food on the table.

The meal was an eclectic mix of farm-produced products, served in bowls and on platters family-style. Seated around the table and surrounded by a panoramic view of Tuscany and feasting on simple, but delicious, food produced by our hosts on their farm was an experience we will long remember. Platters of various pecorino cheeses made from the milk of sheep we saw grazing in the pasture, two forms of Tuscan breads, several fresh vegetable dishes and flavorful salads made up the menu. One dish many enjoyed was fresh chickpeas that were cooked until tender and seasoned with olive oil, herbs and salt and pepper — simple but delicious. Another salad we enjoyed immensely was made of spelt, a grain frequently used in Tuscan cuisine. Although we did not get recipes, our host described the ingredients in the salad. Like many good farm cooks, she probably did not have a written recipe but used what she had on hand to construct the salad.

My goal is to duplicate the spelt salad. If I am successful, I will share it with you next week.

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