It’s no secret that autumn is my favourite month in Tuscany. It’s partly the relief from the relentless heat of summer, that feeling that you can finally breathe again, and partly, well, mostly, it’s the food. The cooler weather finally lets me get back into the kitchen (in particular the oven, which I usually avoid at all costs in the summer), to do the things I really love, like slow cooking and baking. And autumn’s ingredients just make my heart do a little back flip!
In September you begin to get grapes, real grapes with seeds in them that have been sweetened by the sun, varieties that are usually used for making into wine and that might make you pucker from the tannins. Then you start to see foraged wild mushrooms, like thick, chunky porcini, still covered in damp earth and small and shiny chestnuts collected from Mount Amiata for roasting or boiling. Quinces and pomegranates, those most mysterious fruits, are hanging off heavy branches.
But it’s also the feel of the new season that’s special, that chill in the air that means fireplaces are crackling and soups or stews are cooking and a hearty ragu of wild boar over fresh pappardelle is just what you feel like eating.
To celebrate the first days of autumn, I went on a mini holiday (partly for fun, partly for ‘research’, more on that below) with my friend Giulia to one of the most stunning parts of Tuscany; to Pienza in the Val d’Orcia valley, a place where autumn looks truly spectacular (and to the place where my very first blog post started, but more on that in a bit). You know that picture perfect image of Tuscany you have in your mind? The cypress trees and that little chapel of La Vitaleta? Those wheat fields that Russel Crowe runs his hands through in that Gladiator dream sequence? That is the Val d’Orcia.
Though it poured with rain on our drive there, the sun came out in full force while we were in the parking lot and in minutes it was as if it had never rained at all — autumn for you. We were shown around by our gracious hosts, sisters Luisa and Martina, of Agriturismo il Rigo, where we also spent the night. Panoramic Pienza (where we stopped to get my daughter a strawberry and rosemary sorbet and admire the view), beautiful San Quirico d’Orcia (their home town), Bagno Vignoni (a place where the main piazza is a pool of thermal spring water), Vignoni Alto to gasp at the jaw-dropping views of the naked, beige wheat fields that look like they’ve been drawn with coloured pencils, and all of it with the most spectacularly beautiful drives on often gravely white roads in between.
Luisa and Martina knew well to feed us well — they took us to their parents’ elegant home in San Quirico for lunch, where we ate handmade trofie pasta with homemade pesto and we ate dinner by the fire at their beautiful agriturismo where, after a plate of pecorino di Pienza decorated with wild flowers, we had handmade tortelli stuffed with a puree of the chickpeas they grow themselves and roast rabbit. Breakfast was all homemade or homegrown.
We were totally spoiled.
The next day we made a visit to nearby Podere il Casale for a lunch mainly made up of cheese — how can you do otherwise when it comes to a place like this? I’ve been coming here over the years and enjoying their views, their cheese and their company (cheese maker Ulisse and his partner Sandra) ever since I wrote my first blog post in 2010 on a brilliant cheese making lesson there with Ulisse. Artisan sheep and goats milk cheese (pecorino and caprino, respectively), made from the raw, organic milk of the animals that graze right next to the room where the cheese is made and matures; it’s one of those very simple pleasures, well made, with care, with character.
Just look — this is one happy goat and everyone knows happy goats make delicious milk.
Our last stop was a visit to Puscina, a wildflower farm, which sounds like a bit of an oxymoron but the three lovely sisters Mara, Laura and Teresa, who run this lovely space on a hill top between Pienza and Montepulciano are already well known for their beautiful bouquets for events and weddings. We came away with some pumpkins out of their vegetable patch, which I promptly turned into jam (a spicy candied ginger and pumpkin jam partly inspired by Giulia’s and this recipe) and a cinnamon-scented loaf. I did mention I love autumn, didn’t I?
P.S. The research part of the trip was to find some beautiful, special and interesting places to hold a possible workshop next autumn. Do you like the sound of being taken around this wonderful area? Drop me a line!