Tuscan Thursday

This time a year ago I was flying to Florence to get ready for a Tour of Tuscany, an adventure in taste and travel with a group from Erie (you can learn more about  Life Can be a Trip here). We were starting in Florence, and then, with our guide, Raffaele, heading to a 10-bedroom villa in Greve for the week. We would use the villa as our base (and cooking headquarters) to head off to Sienna, San Gimignano, Modena, and more.

Lunch at Il Casale

We spent most of the day at a winery, with half the group learning to make and mix wine and the other half making lunch. We shared both the wine and the fruits of the cooking class at a late lunch. We also spent a day at an organic farm, Il Casale, where the family makes cheese and teaches cooking classes (and you can stay overnight there as well). We learned to make pizza there, by hand, and then cook it in an outdoor wood-fired oven.

We traveled to a small house outside Bologna, in Modena, where the famous balsamic vinegar is made in the attic so that it ages and reduces into a sweeter, syrupy self that can be poured over ice cream in addition to drizzling on cheese or salads.

Tasting balsamic vinegar in Modena.

We went to a saffron farm, where unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate so we couldn’t go out into the fields. Yet we had a divine lunch that included a saffron-flavored ice cream.

We cooked at home two nights with a delightful family that taught us to make ravioli, pumpkin soup (see the green gourd, that’s the pumpkin), torta di nonna, and more.

The pumpkin for our cooking lesson at the villa.

On our final night, we make the famous Florentine beef, a thick-cut porterhouse (2 inches) cooked over a wood fire in the villa. Our guide for the week took on the task of chef for the night. We had stopped at several markets along the way and put together a last meal to celebrate.

What’s it like to travel with 20 people for the first time? And live together in one house? It takes a certain type of traveler to adventure forth, and a travel coordinator who is extraordinary. Denise Padden, of Life Can Be a Trip, creates such an atmosphere that this group could come together. Some of us had never traveled outside the country. Others had a passport filled with experience.

It helps to have a fabulous guide, Raffaele Pitteri, and gorgeous villa, and such passionate and welcoming people who wanted to share their love for wine, food, and their country.

We moved at our own pace. I was up most mornings early with one or a group who would hike downhill into Greve each morning for beauty and exercise. Of course, this meant we had to hike uphill home, where breakfast was waiting. A charming couple baked pastries and make Italian coffee each morning for use to start our day. I can still remember the pear tart – made with pears from their tree.

View from the villa.

You could stay at the villa for the day, or you could join the excursion into the various towns and taste adventures. A year later, I am finishing the bottle of wine the group made and shipped back to the United States as a memento of our trip in a meal of braised shortribs my daughter and I will have tonight. It was an exceptional year for olive oil, and I have just one bottle left of the case we had shipped home.

But I have lots of memories. And quite a few recipes. I look forward to returning some day.

Until then, mangiamo!



Print Recipe
Il Casale Pizza Dough
This is adapted for smaller portions.
Course Main Dish
Course Main Dish
  1. Combine water, yeast, sugar/honey, and olive oil in a large bowl to proof.
  2. In another bowl, mix together flour and salt. Create a well in the center of your flour mixture.
  3. Pour water into the well. Gradually, using your fingers, stir the water/yeast mixture to pull the flour into the center. Once it becomes sort of shaggy, begin kneading the whole mess together into a ball. You can turn it out on the the counter to do this.
  4. You will want to knead by folding the dough over onto itself, pushing away, and pulling back, until the ball is soft and when you push your finger against it, it springs back. This will take about 15 minutes. Don't shortchange this process.
  5. Divide the ball in half and shape into two balls. At this point, put them on a baking sheet covered with a damp cloth in a room at least 70 degrees and allow to double in size. This can take from 1 to 4 hours depending on the room temperature.
  6. Or you can cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. If you refrigerate overnight (8 hours), remove from refrigerator about 30 to 45 minutes before you want to begin shaping. It needs to be at room temperature or it will continue to shrink back as you try to stretch it.
  7. In the meantime, heat your oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone in it. This will take the 45 minutes that your dough is resting.
  8. Shape and top pizza.
  9. Place pizza on a pizza peel or baking sheet without a rim that is covered with cornmeal. When oven is hot enough, transfer pizza from peel or baking sheet to pizza stone. Bake until cheese bubbles and dough is has some brown to it - this can be just a couple of minutes to 7 or 8 minutes depending on the number of toppings.
  10. Use your pizza peel or baking sheet to remove pizza from oven. Cut and serve. I like to drizzle more olive on on top before eating.
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