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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”.

tuscan-extravirgin-olive-oil-fresh

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!

truffles-hunter-white-black

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

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.

baccelli-favas-beans-pods-plant

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.

fava-beans-olive-oil-salad

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.

fava-beans-baccelli-salad-salt-pepper

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!

S – for Spring and Sprouts

How do we know its springtime here in Tuscany? Just saying “springtime is here” is dull and a little out-of-date, don’t you think?

almond-tree-flowers

Imagine yourself dozing in the warm sunshine, blessed by a breeze under a blooming almond tree, on the bright green grass carpet covering the hills of the outlying countryside of Certaldo; the small vibrant daisies, primroses and violets slowly popping out here and there, filling the air with their delighting scent, while birds’ and bees’ is the only buzz you can perceive around you. Can you picture yourself immersed into this fairy Tuscan spring scenery?

tree-spring-flowers-violets

Now, I guess that’s what it takes to describe the arrival of Spring when it comes to nature’s awakening here in Tuscany, but wait! Here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School, we have one more good green reason to say “Yay springtime!

It’s when the wild asparagus sprouts pop out. The delicious and tender weed that grows abundant in the Tuscan countryside, mostly in arid environments, on open fields that haven’t been farmed in a while, or wherever there’s a cluster of trees. Its unique taste has been accompanying our great Tuscan culinary tradition since ages, and its multitude of uses in the kitchen have been passed on through generations in our family.

wild-asparagus

However, don’t get tricked by the name: wild asparagus sprouts are nothing like their cultivated peers, the common asparagus you can easily find at the greengrocers’. In fact, unlike the thick and woody sprouts of the common asparagus, the wild one is almost as thin as a grass blade, with a slightly bitter and pungent taste. Grandma’ always said “where there’s one there are hundreds”, and truly it is so, as wild asparagus grows rampant in big thick clusters, that we usually call “asparagiaie”.

field-wild-asparagus

As you may already know, we are passionate about keeping our traditions alive, so this is the time of the year, when we’re very likely to gather on Sundays, put on some rubber boots and go hiking in the woods, in search of this nature’s delicacy. Sometimes we even have fun making up a competition and whoever fills up their basket first wins, leaving the looser to do the grunt work, like cleanse and cook the spoils for all of us once home. It’s a really fun way to spend some time with family or friends, and bring home freshly picked goods for a meal.

But what to do with a great amount of such an exquisiteness, you might be wondering; well, as much wild sprouts we might have gathered in our baskets, it’s hardly ever enough. We enjoy this bounty in many different ways, from eating them raw – freshly picked – or just seared, with a drizzle of olive oil, black pepper and salt, to dipping them into poached eggs; combine them with the classic pasta, and a generous sprinkle of Parmesan shavings or add them to a beaten egg or two, and with the right seasoning enjoy an exquisite Italian omelet with just a splash of fine balsamic vinegar.

wild-asparagus-pan-fried

We could say there are as many recipes to experiment, as the sprouts of an asparagus cluster. However, we kept the best for last, because there is one particular dish that has been in our family for decades, and keeps inspiring us: it’s the smooth, creamy risotto con gli asparagi – Giuseppina’s signature dish when it comes to wild asparagus – and the reason we go crazy about wild sprouts hunting every year! Believe me, once you’ve had a taste of this beautiful spring dish, you won’t ever get enough of it. It’s nothing like the same old risotto you’re used to, it’s just so scented and delicate, yet distinctive and savory. Giuseppina holds tight to her family tradition recipe of course, and you can only experience this live in her kitchen; but there’s one hint about it I’m going to share with you though: I know you may find this unusual, but she never adds wine to simmer her wild asparagus risotto! Curious isn’t it?!

C – for Carnevale

… and other ancient Tuscan traditions

Semel in anno licet insanire” (once a year, it is allowed to act like crazy) – our ancestors used to say on February, during the most bizarre and outgoing celebration of the year.

The Carnival season is a tradition that we are carrying on since medieval times, when jesters used to run through the village, encouraging people – who were then oppressed by the system and used to live in extreme poverty – to parody the values of the society they lived in, and the authority of the severe political and religious commandments, by inverting the roles and creating the Backwards World, where they could disobey the rules and become whatever they wanted for a day, wearing the “clothes” of the character they were joking on, living in redundancy and acting like fools in the cheapest and most rumorous possible way.

MedievalCarnival

This rebellion would help them prepare for the forthcoming Lent season – the austere 40 days of Lent during which they had to abstain from eating meat and follow other ascetic practices, in order to purify their bodies and souls before the Easter festivity. In fact, the word Carnival seems to have Latin origins, as “carne levare” or “carnelevarium” means “giving up on meat”, a practice apparently dated back to the Romans era.

In order to be able to carry on such a commitment of great sacrifice, the Middle Age people would celebrate the Carnival not only by joking and feasting around, but mostly by overindulging on substantial and greasy meals, pints of wine and the sweetest desserts.

In Tuscany we are very bound to our ancient traditions, and fortunately some of them are still an important part of our cultural heritage. When the Carnival festivity comes up, local bakeries fill up their counters with greedy sweet and fried holiday treats, together with the traditional Tuscan dessert, which to this day has kept its original Renaissance recipe. We are talking about the Berlingozzo (berlinˈgɔttso), a soft, moist and flavored donut cake, with one of the quickest and simplest recipes ever, just like our grandmothers used to do it!

This carnival dessert disguised as a breakfast donut, used to be served on Fat Thursday, which in Florence was the day known as Berligaccio. This funny word, was the name of a fifteen-century Tuscan mask, used in Florence during Fat Thursday, and represented by a mascot carried out in effigy through the city’s streets, among the loudest shouts, most colored dances and funny acting.

Berlingaccio Firenze

Just like “Carnevale”, it seems to have a Latin origin as well, from the word “berlengo” which means “table”; this takes us back to the feasting and overindulging tradition of the Medieval period.

We also have a verb descended from it, that you can easily find in most of Boccaccio’s tales, as a proof of the ancient origins of this Tuscan custom. It’s “berlingare” and it means to chatter, or to blather about things with no sense, right after having had a substantial meal and several pints of wine. Giovanni Boccaccio, Certaldo’s local and most famous Late Medieval novelist, poet and humanist, used to make great use of this verb in his works, mostly when talking about or describing a female character, as he would associate it to women’s being so gossipy about everything.

lasciamo stare l’alte e grandi millanterie ch’ella fa quando berlinga coll’altre femmine”() “Ma solamente per voglia di berlingare (…) di che ella è vaghissima, sì ben dir le pare” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) di Giovanni Boccaccio

 “forget about her great bragging about (herself) she does when she chatters with other females (…) But only for the wish to chatter is she famous, even if she thinks she speaks out right” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Tuscan Berlingozzo

berlingozzo toscano

This year’s Fat Thursday is approaching, and after telling you all about this special time of the year here in Tuscany, we couldn’t just leave you there craving for a taste of some Tuscan Carnival treats. As we’re preparing for our traditional feast – next 23th of February – here in Certaldo, we want to share with you the joy of preparing and having a byte of this typical Tuscan dessert. So let’s not “chatter” any further and come to our nice and cheerful donut.

It’s all about a couple of fresh egg yolks, beaten with some sugar until pale, mixed with lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some extravirgin olive oil and a nice cup of Vin Santo – now this is the secret right here!

berlingozzo toscano

We like our Carnival desserts to be sweet and flavored, but our ancestors didn’t have any artificial flavors at the time; they simply used the home-made products they had, and that’s just what makes it so special. So following the ancient customs, we add in our Tuscan traditional home-made directly-from-our-vineyard Vin Santo: a type of italian dessert wine, usually made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, hanged and left to dry out on racks, in a warm and well ventilated area. If you ever come to Certaldo or anywhere near in Tuscany, you can have a taste of this marvelous sweet wine, together with the Cantuccini – our traditional home-made almond cookies, served as a dessert, at the end of your meal. It’s one of our most important landmarks around here, don’t miss it!

berlingozzo toscano

At this point, we just pour in the flour, mixed to some potato starch and a pinch of salt, together with a bit of baking powder. Then gently incorporate the beaten egg whites and pour the dough into a donut shaped baking tin, and into the oven, to bake for about a half an hour… Just enough time for us to sit and sip a nice glass of Vin Santo, while preparing our mask and costumes for the feast. Cheers!

Ingredients: berlingozzo toscano

for a 20 cm. diameter baking tin

2 fresh eggs

75gr. Sugar

1 lemon

50 ml. Vin Santo

50 ml. Extra virgin olive oil

150 gr. Flour

25 gr. Potato starch

6gr. Baking powder

1 pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 170 C degrees

Bake for about 25-30 minutes

Enjoy!

V – for vineyards

 “While Nature Awakens” – behind the scenes

Every January is a new beginning here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School; as the nature awakens, we are preparing for a whole new year, load of great new recipes, delicious home-made preserves and fine tasty Chianti wine directly from our vineyards.

colline all'alba

There’s a great buzz in the air around here, and as Giuseppina is preparing to welcome and delight her guests this season, with new kitchen tricks and tips about her Tuscan recipes, we’re about to kick off with preparing our vineyards for a new great harvest year of fresh, marvelous wine that will go beautifully with our local cuisine dishes.

And because Nature can’t wait, the moment is right for us to cuddle our vines so that they will give us back their best rewards. It is a moment of great devotion, and attention given to the process of the vine’s new vegetative growth, the same as we would give to one of our home-made pasta dishes or bread. We start off by “kneading” the soil just enough so it can breathe out after a long cold winter; next, we add in the “spices” (winter fertilizer) that will help the vine’s heart grow its best harvest, giving the wine just that perfect mix of tastes that makes Chianti wine world wide famous and appreciated. At this point we are almost done, and we start trimming the vine, restoring it to keep the growth shape. It’s probably the most important part of the work, because keeping a clean shaped vine means a richer harvest; as an old saying states, once a vine said to its owner:
Chianti vineyards

fammi povera e ti farò ricco

(Keep me poor -of unwanted trims- and I will make you rich -of the best grapes-).

The vine is abundance, is love for the land in the shape of a grape and it takes a great passion and perseverance to produce the best wine possible, by making the most of the amazing properties that the land of Chianti has to give.

The wine-harvest and tasting is just the final act of a year-long process of hard work and caring, that we are going to share with our guests, making them go beyond the scenes, further than the popular tourist attractions, the simple wine tasting or just a local visit to the vineyards.

We stay out in front and give them the real deal about growing the Chianti vines, together with making them a real part of the story.

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