Tuscan cooking

October 2014 Tuscany Tours

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014
SimpleItaly's happy campers by the granaio at Fattoria Montestigliano where Villa Pipistrelli is situated.

SimpleItaly happy campers in front of the granaio at the Tuscan farm estate Montestigliano where Villa Pipistrelli is situated.

You can put yourself in this picture! Escape to the private Villa Pipistrelli this October for the next Tuscany Tour:  Harvest Celebration with SimpleItaly. Two different week-long itineraries are reserved for you to choose from: October 11-18, 2014 OR October 18-25, 2014. This intimate adventure is all about cultural immersion, relaxation, and good times. You’ll truly feel as if Villa Pipistrelli is your home because you’ll unpack once and “move in” for a week of wonders . . .

  • Sessions on making pecorino cheese, watercolor painting, pasta making, and more
  • Tours of wine estates
  • Magnificent medieval Siena–home of the Palio–and a private tour of a contrada museum
  • Gourmet evening meals prepared by a private chef at Villa Pipistrelli
  • Afternoon at a sagra, a local harvest festival, mingling with the locals
  • Free time to truly explore the natural beauty and experience the daily rhythm of Montestigliano, the 2,500-acre Tuscan estate on which Villa Pipistrelli is tucked away
  • Private meetings with English-speaking experts on the culture, cuisine, and lifestyle

Click here to read what folks are saying about our trips. Click here for the full itinerary to put yourself in the picture!

Foraging for Greens in Tuscany

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014
According to our edible wild plants expert, Marta, the delicate white blooms of the wild garlic in the foreground are only good for looking not eating.

According to our edible wild plants expert, Marta, the delicate white blooms of the wild garlic in the foreground are only good for looking not eating.

“Mother Nature gives us what we need every day,” said Marta, l’erborista, as she greeted our SimpleItaly Adventure in Tuscany tour group on a recent blindingly bright spring morning in the piazzetta at Montestigliano agriturismo.

We passed around her information sheets as she explained that her grandfather, Alterio, educated her in plant foraging when she was a child. An “Italian cowboy” who owned a big farm in the Maremma, she would scour the fields and woods with him to identify and pick wild herbs and mushrooms that her grandmother would transform into good things for the table.

“Wild herbs are great fortune for us. . .for the health of the earth and biodiversity,” said Marta, who is affiliated with an erbandano cultural association that conducts foraging tours in the area southwest of Siena.

“My grandfather said, ‘Open your heart in nature but be careful. Open your eyes. Mother Nature has two faces, one beautiful, one dangerous,’ ” she said, then advising us to watch out for snakes, spiders, and toxic plants. (Her warnings did not go unheeded. I doubt that few in our intrepid band would have had the courage to forage without a Marta leading the charge.)

She led us to a nearby low stone wall where she opened a meticulously annotated reference book with scans of numerous edible plants. Then it was off to the nearby olive grove with our plastic tub for gathering the ingredients for our lunch. The undergrowth was much more lush than typical for the season due to heavy late winter rains. Marta pressed down the high grasses to look for the herbs.

Quicker than a suburban lawn warrior can say Weed B Gon, Marta spotted tarassaco (dandelion), crepis (hawk’s beard), stellaria (stitchwort), papaver (poppy—only eat the leaves!), calendula (marigold), nepeta (catmint-for funghi and pomodori), sonchus (sow thistle), and cicoria (chicory).

When she found the first tender leaves of piantaggine (plaintain) she held two leaves to the crown of her head to mimic their nickname “ears of the hare.” She resembled a woods sprite.

Marta led us to a different olive grove where behind an old stone farm building, she found a flourishing ortica (stinging nettle) plant. She assured us that the prickly leaves would be tasty when we cooked. In fact, they are inedible raw.

“Ortica is the queen of the wild plants,” Marta said. “It’s good for the liver. The cooking water is good for the hair.” In past times, the peasants would weave storage bags from the fibrous stems.

Next stop was the kitchen where, with Marta’s tutelage, we’d cook Mother Nature’s gifts.

To be continued. . .

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