Tuscan cooking

Castagnaccio

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
In Tuscany, chestnut pancakes are a sweet taste of surviving through hard times.

In Tuscany, chestnut pancakes are a sweet taste of surviving through hard times.

In a recent Italian language conversation meeting, talk turned to castagnaccio. Daniele, our born-and-bred Tuscan from Siena, recalled snacking on this cake. He remembered it in detail. It was made from ground chestnuts and olive oil embellished with raisins, rosemary, and pine nuts.

To my American ears, such an austere combination of ingredients didn’t sound much like any cake I knew. But since I had never sampled a castagnaccio, I decided to bake one.

I ordered chestnut flour on nuts.com and while waiting for it to arrive, I started researching recipes.

Pamela Sheldon Johns’ Cucina Povera seemed like a good starting point since this “cake” was clearly food of the poor. She shared a recipe but the head note gave me pause. “This dense cake is an acquired taste, and it has taken me almost twenty years to acquire it. But its musky chewiness is much loved by Tuscans.”

Patrizia Chen in Rosemary and Bitter Oranges was more encouraging. “Semisweet, tender, and distinctively nutty, castagnaccio is in itself worth a trip to Tuscany in fall or winter.” She also refers to the preparation as a pancake which seems a more accurate descriptor than cake.

more about castagnaccio

Tour Tuscany with SimpleItaly

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013
Our group will share two private secluded villas on the Montestigliano Estate near Siena.

Our group will enjoy the amenities of the Montestigliano Estate near Siena.

Please Join Us For a “Celebration of the Senses”

Tuscany is filled with magical places. Places that inspire awe, surprise you with their beauty, link you to the seasons, nature, and the rich heritage of Italian life, laughter, art, food, and wine.

But few Tuscan locales offer the splendid seclusion, the golden patina, and the warmth of Villa Pipistrelli where we invite you to indulge your “Inner Italian” with us next April.

Like the richness of a Sassicaia Super-Tuscan vino rosso, we’ve blended a unique combination of off-site adventures, on-site experiences, guest experts, authors, and the luxury of free time to inspire you to look at life in a fresh way. You will see, taste, touch, smell, and hear Tuscany instead of being isolated behind the windows of a massive motorcoach.

Our “family” of 14 travelers will unpack only once, settle in, and call Villa Pipistrelli home. The Donati family, who own and steward the estate, tell us that guests have been known to cry when they say goodbye to Villa Pipistrelli. Seriously!

We hope this adventure will feel like an expanded version of the liveliest dinner party you’ve ever attended. . . here’s the menu for our feast, the Complete Tour Itinerary.

–Sharon and Walter

The Donati Family

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue
 of the award-winning subscription travel newsletter Dream of Italy

By Walter Sanders

Montestigliano is a compound of historic villas.

Montestigliano is a compound of historic villas and farm houses.

I felt at home in Villa Pipistrelli. That feeling of comfort was not an accident.

“It’s simple. We want our guests to feel like part of the family,” says Luisa Donati, marketing manager for the family’s Pipistrelli, Montestigliano, and Palazzo Donati Mercatello (in Le Marche) properties.

To feel like part of this family would be an honor. Signore Giancarlo Donati, the patriarch who’s in his 80s, is a talented business man with a big personality. Sixty some years ago, he learned to fly and bought a small plane. On one of his first flights he shocked the citizens of Mercatello by bombing the town with ripe peaches.

Virginia, the eldest child, is an architect, fearless singer, and animated dancer.

Massimo Donati discusses the olives that are raised to produce the family's signature olio d'olive.

Massimo Donati discusses the olives that are raised to produce the family’s signature extra vergine olio d’oliva.

Massimo is the farmer who manages the olive oil production, as well as the family’s efforts in sustainable energy from BioGas methane transfer. He’s also the leader in solar energy capture on the properties.

Damiano is the family accountant, a spirited singer, and master griller.

Marta provides administrative support for the business.

Together, the family has integrated its dream of sustainability, tourism, and a unique Tuscan experience into a business model that revolves around Agriturismo. (An Agriturismo is a government designation for an operating farm that rents lodging and provides food from its own production.)

The Big Cena at the Montestigliano Property

Once a week, guests from the Pipistrelli and Montestigliano properties are invited to a dinner hosted by the Donati family in the spacious top floor of the old granary. The food is prepared by Anna, the talented young Polish chef, who has been with the family for nearly ten years.

All the food is procured from local suppliers. The olives for the extra virgin oil are grown on the property. Luisa introduced me to a cheese maker named Fiametta whose four different pecorino cheeses were featured. Luisa told Fiametta that she would have the opportunity to address the 60 guests and speak briefly about her cheese, and that Luisa would translate. Fiametta looked very nervous about the prospect but we both encouraged her to try.

By the end of the evening, after Fiametta had taken several orders for cheese purchases, she said to Luisa, “That was great fun, I want to do it again sometime soon!” Ah, a celebrity is born.

Luisa and Massimo make everyone feel like family around their dining table.

Luisa and Massimo make everyone feel like family around their dining table.

I mixed with some of the guests who were staying at the Montestigliano property. Many of them told me that they had been visiting for decades with friends and relatives (some multi-generational) in tow.

The meal was excellent. All five Donati siblings  mingled with the guests. After dessert Damiano grabbed the karaoke microphone and kicked off an hour of singing and dancing.

To be continued:

Palazzo Donati Mercatello and nearby attractions

Making Fresh Pasta in Tuscany

Friday, April 12th, 2013

This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue
 of the award-winning subscription travel newsletter Dream of Italy

By Walter Sanders

Flour and egg transformed into gossamer sheets of fresh pasta.

Flour and egg transformed into gossamer sheets of fresh pasta.

While staying at Villa Pipistrelli just south of Siena, our group visited nearby Stigliano. We were on a mission: to learn how make fresh pasta from scratch. Our teachers were two older women from the village. They were beautiful, gracious and patient. Pasta-making rookies began combining ingredients, and our enthusiasm was evident despite beaten eggs leaking from collapsed flour walls.

With the help of our lovely mentors, everyone finished their dough and formed it into a ball. All the balls were kneaded together, then rolled flat, cut, stuffed, trimmed and transformed into ravioli.

The site was La Bottega di Stigliano, a combination retail shop—specializing in locally produced agricultural products—and a restaurant. The building was a former casa del popolo, a people’s house where in olden times farm workers would meet to sell products. The casa also served as a social center. It was, in a sense, a one-stop shop where people could fill their baskets with food and make social connections. read more about making fresh pasta in Tuscany

My Husband Is In Tuscany

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Is Tuscany a state of mind? It has to be when your husband is there without you.

Mio marito è in viaggio in Toscana. My husband is traveling in Tuscany.

Am I envious that he is in one of the most desirable destinations on earth without me? Or that his last email so exquisitely described a day in Firenze that it seemed surreal?

No. Truly, no. It’s not that I’m that selfless. But I am glad that he’s in a place that gives him so much joy. And—full disclosure—every time I’ve traveled alone on a media trip to Italy, he has been totally supportive. To not reciprocate would make me seem really petty.

The grape vines after harvest at Tenute Silvio Nardi near Montalcino, Tuscany.

Walking this morning, I felt assured that my Inner Italian is always available to transport me. The crystalline September light took me back to my visit in Toscana a couple years back, on a trip sponsored by Donna Franca Tours. The air was crisp and the sun warm even though it was November and the weather had been chilly and drizzly. My group was visiting Tenute Silvio Nardi, a highly regarded wine producer near Montalcino. The grapeless vines shimmered with tinges of gold and burgundy.

We enjoyed an early lunch of salume, formaggi, e focaccia with the elegant Nardi Rosso di Montalcino. It was tasty but the aroma of simmering ragù cinghiale (wild boar sauce) coming from the kitchen was distracting me like crazy. On my way out, I stuck my head in the cucina to briefly meet the cooks Lucia and Marizia who were preparing tagliatelle to accompany the robust meat ragù for an event that evening. (That time, I was envious!)

The Nardi cooks with their hand-rolled tagliatelle.

I purchased a Rosso di Montalcino from a good year as a gift for my husband. One of my trip mates, noticing the price, asked if he’d appreciate the value. “Yes,” I replied with certainty, “he will.”

And he did.