Nature

L’Olio Novo

The Tuscan Green Gold, from the farm to the fork!

Autumn isn’t only about roasting chestnuts and sipping red wine by the fireplace. There’s pretty little time to just sit around, when living in the Tuscan countryside. So between the golden autumn leaves and the first winter chill, as soon as we’re done with the vine harvest, we must get our strength back and be ready for a new adventure: the olive harvest.

Pretty much like every other year, we start picking olives in our farm, around the mid of October, and just before the first chills of November. Anciently it was used to wait for the olives to be fully mature before harvesting. But the weather wasn’t always merciful with crops in late autumn, so to protect them from the early frosts, over the years people have traditionally developed the custom that we all know today, to harvest olives earlier: before they are fully ripe.

olio-novo-tuscan-olive-harvest

This tradition, has become an essential part of our territory’s reputation worldwide, for it has given us a unique product of excellence: “l’olio novo” toscano (the freshly pressed Tuscan extravirgin olive oil). Unique because the chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the PDO extravirgin olive oil are mostly related to the climate of the growth area, which influences directly the quality of the phenols, the bitterness and sharpness of the taste.

So harvesting olives before they are ripe, means the level of polyphenol they contain is still high. And although, unfortunately for us, that implies a lower quantity of product, it’s actually just what it needs to obtain the perfect contrast of that intense bitter and peppery taste, so typical of the Tuscan extravirgin olive oil. However, the final result for each batch of oil, also depends on many other elements, so much that it’s almost impossible to have two different productions with the same taste, even within the same area.

olive-tree-harvest

As we always do in our farm, harvesting olives turns into a family fun activity. Being a farmer is a rather tough physical effort and any extra hand is always welcome; so traditionally during the olive harvest, close relatives and friends or neighbors from the nearby farms gather to offer their help and spend some lighthearted days together in the open air, enjoying the breathtaking view over the Tuscan hills. Everyone takes part in the process and being able to follow the product from the olive grove to the fork, is really exciting for all.

tuscan-olive-harvest-family-fun

The day starts very early in the morning, when armed with rubber boots, comfy clothes and tools of the trade, we reach our small olive grove and start collecting the greenish-purple little gems. What we love the most about it, is that our family still preserves the tradition from generations, and a day of hard work in the farm, easily turns into a celebration. We love to recreate the old fashioned charm of living in the countryside, just like our grandparents used to: understanding the importance of this moment, giving thanks for nature’s richness and sharing the sweat, the laughter, the food and the wine, until the work is done! My grandfathers used to tell me about their harvest gatherings, describing those moments as the most important in the life of a farmer, for socializing and opening up with others on everyday life, by sharing the labor and the table.

tuscan-olive-harvest-view

Our busy day harvesting olives comes to an end only after sunset, always following nature’s course. Depending on the size of the olive grove, it may take from one day to an entire week to finish, so we store the harvested pods in plastic boxes, or on the floor of a cool and well ventilated room, until we can take them to the mill for the pressing, but usually no longer than 48 hours.

olives-tuscan-extravirgin-oil

The mills in this area are quite a few and larger farms even have their own. We take our harvest to a very old mill nearby, that uses the traditional “cold pressing” process, to obtain the best expression of the extravirgin olive oil. First, olives are washed in cold water, removing as much leaves as possible. All that’s left is being then crushed together by a giant milestone and stored in stainless steel tins.

olive-harvest-fresh-extravirgin-olive-oil

Now this is what we actually call l’olio novo” (the new oil) here in Tuscany! It’s the freshly squeezed, unstrained and unprocessed extravirgin olive oil, that we all go crazy about. It’s the base ingredient for all our traditional cuisine dishes, and worldwide recommended for its well-known promoting nutrients and overall health benefits. We use it in our kitchens everyday: fresh drizzled over a salad, cooked in most dishes, sometimes as a healthy substitute for butter in cakes and even in the pan, for a healthier frying. But when it comes to the fruity, peppery pungent freshly squeezed olive oil, the first thing that comes to mind is “la fettunta” (the greasy slice): the Tuscan traditional, healthiest and most simple dish ever, and the best way to enjoy to the fullest, the amazing flavor of “the new oil”.

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As soon as we bring the “green gold” back home, we just can’t help but drizzle it on a piece of Tuscan toasted white bread (unsalted); just like that, nothing else added, no other confounding ingredients, just our own special extravirgin olive oil… and this is when we realize that once again, all the sweat and the hard working was all worth it!

Truffles – When, What, How?

Everything you need to know about these earthy fragranced and pungent tasting gems!

October is a rich harvest month for delicious olives and sweet chestnuts. It’s time for comfort food, warm socks and a hot mug on hand by the fireplace. But most of all, it’s the perfect time to go truffle hunting, for the king of them all: the precious white truffle! That is if you’re not a comfortable warm-socks-hot-mug type of person, because truffle hunting is no easy job!

truffle-hunting-woods

When should you go searching for truffles?

We must say that there is no such thing as a “truffle season”, it’s only a matter of following nature’s course and knowing where to look and what to search for, during a year’s long different periods. So if we got you curious on this one, continue reading as we’re going to reveal all there is to know about truffles!

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As we were saying, following nature’s course is a good starting point if you’re out looking for truffles, because first of all, you need to know what exactly you’re looking for! Truffle is a distant relative of common mushrooms, in fact it’s a subterranean Ascomycete fungus, and more precisely one of the Tuber species, which grows in symbioses with some trees’ roots, spreading its spores mostly due to the fungivore animals who have a taste for truffles as well as mushrooms and other fungi. Truffles grow on their own, and you’ll never see more than one in a single hole, but chances are very high that you may find others around the same tree. Another interesting fact about truffles is that they actually start growing 5 months previous to when you find them, which means that if you find one truffle in winter, it probably was formed during summer time. However, truffles grow and ripen in different times, and when they do, their smell only lasts for 8 hours and they actually only ‘live’ for 10-15 days before turning into organic substance for small animals and wood’s soil.

white-truffle-hand

What should you be looking for?

There are mainly two types of truffles, divided in other categories: the black truffle and the white truffle. Here in Tuscany we have the black ‘summer’ truffle (Tuber aestivum) or ‘scorzone’, which has a hard skin and dark aromatic flesh; this one can be found just under the topside of the ground. We harvest the black summer truffle from the beginning of June til late autumn and it has a very appreciated culinary value, together with the burgundy black truffle (Tuber uncinatum), which is part of the same species, but it’s called this way for its crocheted-like skin. Starting from late September there is a transition period, in which it’s likely we find the last of black truffles, as well as the first ripe white ones. This marks the beginning of the eagerly awaited white truffle period, which lasts until mid-January more or less.

The white truffle (Tuber Magnatum) can be found under the roots of oaks, hazels, poplar or beeches and has a pale light brown flesh with white marbling. It grows deeper into the ground than the black one, (up to 160 ft. underground) and that’s what makes it more difficult to be found. Since it forms during summer time, when there is less (to none) humidity in the soil, white truffle originates deeper underground, taking advantage of the more humid part of it. A less known and used type is a kind of ‘wild’ truffle called Tuber Macrosporum, which has a strong garlic taste and it’s hardly ever used in the kitchen.

white-truffle-hunting

How do you actually find truffles?

So what about the ‘hunting’ part? Well actually that is just the final stage of a long process which starts with a puppy! Yes, that’s right: you can’t go searching sniffing and digging for truffles in the woods on your own, unless you have a dog’s nose, so the first thing you’ll need to do, is train a dog to do it for you! In our family, the truffle hunter is Luigi, Giuseppina’s husband, together with his trusted trained dogs.

truffle-hunter-dog

The main breed used for truffle hunting is Lagotto Romagnolo, but actually none of Luigi’s dogs are purebred. In his words, it’s mostly the medium size, a good nose, a low-speed chase and a deep feeling with the owner that makes the perfect truffle hunting dog. Luigi cares about his dogs as if they were his children and trains them everyday so they don’t loose their interest in truffles! It takes a lot of effort, devotion and of course money to train a dog for truffles, and it all starts with newborn cubs. First they are being fed with little pieces of real truffle mixed to their usual dog food (no truffle oil or similar is ever being used). The puppy grows familiar with the taste and the smell of truffles and that makes him greedy with it. Later on, truffle becomes part of the fun for the dog, as small pieces of it are hidden in treats that he has to find, in order to receive a tasty reward.

truffle-hunting-dog

Actually, for Luigi’s dogs, going truffle hunting is more of a fun activity rather than ‘work’, as some may think. They enjoy sniffing the woods in search of the truffles, because they know there’s a big tasty reward waiting for them if they do, plus they’re greedy of those earthy little treats too… who’s not?!

However, what’s most important is the feeling that’s being built between the dog and his owner… you can’t just simply buy or rent a trained dog and expect him to do the dirty job for you! You need to know, feel and love your dog, in order to understand his behavior and read the signs of his body movements, otherwise you may end up with your truffles eaten by the dog before you know it, or even worse: no truffles at all!

truffle-dog-hunter

One last – but not less important – thing you should know, is that besides the dog, the passion and the camouflage dress up, first of all you’ll need a state license. Hunters achieve a special permit (which allows them to search for truffles and mushrooms in any forest throughout Italy), by following a special course where they are taught many different aspects regarding the hunting, such as legislation, guidance, knowing the woods and preserving the forest ground and undergrowth.

Now we may have discouraged you a little bit on that last one, but don’t worry: if you feel like going hunting but don’t have the time to attend a class and train your own dog while in Italy for vacation, you can still join Luigi for a fun hunting activity in the Tuscan woods around Certaldo, and end up tasting the booty over a generous four-course lunch at Cucina Giuseppina, where it’s all about good Chianti wine and home made Tuscan delicacies.

truffle-dishes-tuscan-cooking

Certaldo’s Sweet Red Onions

In the XIV century, in one of his most famous novels (VI, 10) from The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote:

Certaldo, as you may have heard, is a castle of Val d’ Elsa situated in our county, which, however small it may be, was once inhabited by noblemen and men of substance; and thither, for that he found good pasture there, one of the friars of the order of St. Anthony was long used to resort once a year, to get in the alms bestowed by simpletons upon him and his brethren. His name was Fra Cipolla (Friar Onion) and he was gladly seen there, doubtless due as much to his name, as to other reasons, for thus it was known that the soil of those fields produces onions, that are famous throughout all Tuscany.”

red-onion-certaldo

This is just a small evidence that Certaldo’s red onion, has been known from way back, even before the middle-ages. We’re talking about a slow food presidium and product of excellence of our territory, which you can find in two varieties: the Stantina, a round purplish onion, with succulent flesh that’s best eaten during the summer months, and the Vernina, the bright red and sour tasting type, harvested from the end of August all through the winter season, and symbol of Certaldo.

red-onions-certaldo

But if we look even further back, way prior to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Friar Onion, the red onion had already been adopted as a symbol of the hardworking strong spirit and sweet temper of Certaldo’s inhabitants, and thus represented on the town’s pennant. So it dominated the white side of the two-tier shield, with the motto: “By nature, I am strong yet sweet and everyone here likes me, those who work and those who sit”. However, in 1633, the Priors running the burgh, decided that it was an unworthy crest for their town, and replaced it with a rampant lion. Later, in the XIX century, the city council would have re-established the original crest that you may see today on our town’s flag.

Ancient mural of Certaldo’s first crest, representing the red onion on a two-tier shield – Source: Wikimedia.org

Anyway, don’t expect to come across onions at every corner, when visiting Certaldo. Almost every farmer here grows its own, for their families’ consumption or local trading. So if you’re curious and looking for these sweet red gems, your only chances are the weekly local markets on Wednesday and Saturday, or the annual Sagra della Cipolla (The Onions’ Festival).

Since we are very proud of this marvelous product of our area, we keep the tradition alive, by celebrating it every year, with a week-long festival. It’s being held in the old burgh of Certaldo Alto, every year around the end of August, when our farmers harvest the Vernina type. Every evening, we gather together to taste the exquisite dishes prepared with the red onion, following ancient recipes that have been passed down through generations. There are people that live here, sitting together with others that came from different counties, or even tourists; banqueting, enjoying the good food and lots of Chianti wine from the local producers, accompanied by theater plays or themed performances.

red-onion-dish-food

Keeping the old recipes and traditions alive is the main purpose of this event, but we also like to look forward to the future generations. So on the second-last day, the festival hosts a food competition between the town’s quarters, which anticipates The Calambur: Certaldo’s medieval Palio, due to take place a few weeks later. During the food competition, every quarter has to come up with a new and creative dish, made with red onions. A committee made by people of the public gets to taste and decide on the best recipe. This year’s competition is not going to be a simple one, as they have to create a desert! I bet you’ve never thought about onions for desert, but let me tell you that you might just be surprised by the genius recipes and mixture of flavors that these people have come up with, over the years.

They’ve gone from making the ordinary soup, pasta and meat dishes with the red onions, to pickling, canning, making jam and jelly, adding them to chutneys, sweet and salted pies and even using them as homeopatic medicine, following ancient remedies left down by our grand-grand-parents. Practically, if you love red onions like we do, you can do just about anything with them!

At the Cooking School we make our most famous -handmade- Certaldo’s Red Onion Jam. It’s a family tradition, that has been taken forward for generations. It has a bitter-sweet taste and pairs perfectly with local pecorino cheese and salami, or Giuseppina’s special pork tenderloin in old-style dry marinade… to die for!

So if all this onion talking has captured your curiosity and you might want to try some onions for desert, here’s a special treat for you. It has been created and shared by a friend of mine and I’m telling you: if you’re into onions, you have to try this one!

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Did we get you mouth-watering yet? Then here’s the recipe for you!

Red wine caramelized onions & dark chocolate tartlets

Finely chop 2-3 sweet red onions from Certaldo and add them in a pan with a small piece of unsaltened butter and 2-3 generous tablespoons of muscovado brown sugar. Put it over low heat until softened but not brown. Add a glass of Chianti red wine, a pinch of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, a few cardamom seeds and some pink pepper granules (or any other spices you prefer). Allow the liquid to cook off and the alcohol to evaporate, and then add in a chunk of dark chocolate. Set aside and prepare your favorite recipe of shortcrust pastry. The one you see, had a touch of rustic taste, due to replacing half of the plain white flour with buckwheat flour. Blind-bake your pastry in a preheated oven, let it cool before removing it from the pan and fill each pastry case with the caramelized onions. Add some chopped walnuts and top with goat cheese creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream. Enjoy!

Have you tried this? Post your photos in the comments below and let us know how it was!

B – for Baccelli & Pecorino

With all this nice and warm springtime weather, people start roaming the countryside basking in the sun, away from the traffic rush, enjoying nature’s bountiful colors and sounds. This reminds me of the time when, as a child, we used to dive into the rich fields of favas, for a bellyful of these pods, risking the wrath of the farmers, for having destroyed their harvest. That’s right, because the fava beans pods were a very precious nourishment for the farmers’ cattle, but if picked up at the beginning of the season, they would make a greedy treat for us too.

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I’m talking about an ancient member of the pea family, called “vicia faba” – fava beans, or broath beans or better yet “baccelli” as we use to call them here in Tuscany. Of pale green color with a slightly nutty flavor, these pods grow from late March all throughout the beginning of May.

It’s been proven they have been farmed since very ancient times, and have had an important part in the culture of many nations around the world. They were very appreciated in ancient Rome, so much that one of the most important noble family in the history of Romans, took their surname “i Fabi” from these pulses (vicia faba). Tracks have been found even in Troy and Crete and some say in ancient Greece, eating them was even prohibited, as the black stains on the pods were associated to death. However, their important nutritional value has been rediscovered more recently, as over time favas went from being appreciated by the wealthy class to being used for commoners and cattle feeding. Many legends have been around throughout the years on these pulses, but the most curious one that is still circulating nowadays around here, is the legend of the “leap pod”; it’s about the strange growth that favas have on a leap year. Farmers believe that on a leap year’s harvest, the fava beans inside the pods grow backwards; meaning that if you shell one, you’ll find the beans attached downward, as opposed to the stem. It’s truly just a funny legend, but you know what they say, passing on myths and legends keeps one nation’s story alive, and it can even get fun spending a lazy Sunday afternoon shelling pods to see who finds the backwards beans, on a leap year!

baccelli-fava-broath-beans

Coming back to these days, the tender fresh picked favas are a great treat for a springtime pic nic. In Tuscany we love them raw with just a pinch of salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, combined to its inseparable companion, the Tuscan Pecorino DOP cheese; it makes the perfect snack to go with a nice glass of Chianti wine.

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We like them so much, we even have a one-day festival called “la baccellata” that is held in Certaldo Alto, on the 25th of April this year, and helps the local church of San Tommaso e Prospero raise funds for another important occurrence, the procession of Beata Giulia in September. During the “baccellata” day, people gather to enjoy these tasty fresh pods together with Pecorino Marzolino cheese, a Tuscan type of fresh Pecorino, that hasn’t been seasoned and blends together beautifully with favas, in a unique delight for all senses.

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Another interesting way to taste your favas raw, is to make an easy and fast but very nutritious pesto out of them. All you need is 250gr of fresh shelled fava beans, a clove of garlic, 80gr of Pecorino cheese, a pinch of salt and some fresh basil leaves if you like it. Just blend everything together and then add a splash of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, to get a creamy texture. You can enjoy this delight on a piece of toasted bread (crostini), as a side dish for meat or fish or make a generous portion of pasta: just boil it until “al dente” and stir-fry everything for one minute, adding just a drop of the boiling water if necessary. You can get creative and add some pine nuts or almonds to the mixture if you like, or just add them on top of the dish, slightly toasted.

pesto-baccelii-favas-pecorino

So our last tip is: when buying favas at the marketplace, if you’re in Tuscany ask for baccelli and if you wish to taste them raw, search for tender, firm pods with a velvety fuzz and small thin skinned beans inside, otherwise you’ll have to peel the skin off and to do so you’ll have to boil them for a few minutes.

fava-beans-salad-rustic

I guess all that’s left to say is buona baccellata (happy favas day)!!!

Enjoy!