Friday, 19 September 2014

Tuscan Trails: Cooking, Dining and Wining

Some ripe sangiovese grapes on the vine waiting to be harvested
After our short visit to Pisa, we were taken to a Tuscan farm that grows grapes for wines, olives for olive oil and also makes balsamic vinegar.

It's called Fattoria il Poggio and it's definitely set up for tourists to visit, sample the food with wine and hopefully they'll purchase some of the above food products, as well as dried porcini mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, honey, and even the farm's own cookbook to take home.

Freshly made crostini with mushrooms that was delicious
Apparently this farm hosts some 5,000 visitors a week and with some guests taking tins of olive oil and bottles of wine back home, surely this is a profitable business...

But before we could sip the wine and dig into some rustic dishes, we first had a cooking demonstration of how to make basic Bolognese sauce by one of the chefs there, a female chef who didn't speak English, but had a translator.

She chopped up a carrot, celery, half an onion, half a garlic clove, and then sauteed them in a pan with salt and pepper. Of course olive oil was used -- and she used a lot. We all gasped when she didn't stop pouring...

Playing with our dough to make all kinds of pasta
After about 10 minutes you add ground beef, and when the meat is dry, then take the pan off the heat to add some dry white wine. If you use red wine, it changes the colour of the sauce, and dry is preferred, and no sparkling wine.

Put the pan back on the heat and let the alcohol evaporate which will take another 10 minutes before adding tomatoes. Of course fresh, ripe tomatoes are preferred but canned ones are fine (depending on what kind of texture you want, it can be diced or pureed).

At this point add herbs and spices and then let it simmer for two hours. Intermittently add water, but best to add as little as possible to retain the flavour.

The real pasta of pappardelle with bolognese sauce
If making risotto, use olive oil to saute garlic and vegetables, like porcini, and then add rice and water. The general rule is one handful of rice per person. Then keep stirring and adding water. We asked about using chicken stock, but the chef said no, because the chicken flavour overpowers the other flavours, which contradicts what many other chefs have told me previously...

In any event, she also showed us how to make crostini out of leftover bread. Slice up some mushrooms and garlic and then saute them with olive oil, sage or parsley and then add salt and pepper. Then spoon it onto the bread.

Another is to chop up fresh tomatoes and mix them together with basil, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper and olive oil and then spoon this concoction on top of bread slices. Yum.

A pretty good red wine...
Following the demonstration, we were instructed to get up from our seats and do some work. We were already wearing aprons and on the table in front of each of us was a bowl with some flour and a raw egg in it.

We were told to break the egg and then mix it into the flour with a fork. Once it was mixed well, we could start kneading it on the table, adding more and more flour to it. And then we were instructed to roll it out as thinly as possible. Some of ours came out great, others had to be rescued by the chef, who quickly added more flour and water to fix the dough.

Once it was rolled out, we could create pasta, by cutting thick lines to make pappardelle, or cut a rectangular shape, stuff something in the middle, fold it in half and then use the ridged cutter to make ravioli. The same concept could be used to make half moon dumplings too called agnolotti. Also using the ridge cut to make farfalle or bow-tie pasta, and tortellini, similar to wontons.

The best white of the evening...
After we cleaned ourselves of flour and washed our hands, we had a tour of the vineyards and olive groves. For olives, they were picked by hand -- shaking the tree apparently affects the roots and is not good. The olives are harvested and then put in a machine where everything is crushed -- including the seeds. This first pressing is the cold press, and is considered the best extra virgin olive oil. This means no chemicals were used to extract it.

Fattoria il Poggio then sells this left over crushed olives to olive oil producers, will further extract oil from it using chemicals and so it may still be called virgin olive oil but not extra virgin, nor cold pressed.

A word of advice -- never eat olives straight from the tree -- apparently it's a taste you will never forget. The olives have to be put in brine before they are edible!

The farm also makes wine from sangiovese and trebbiano toscano grapes. We tried some of the latter straight from the vine, and they were very sweet, hence they were busy harvesting the grapes when we were there.

Martha the dog gets a lot of attention from visitors
Our dinner was held in the "cellar", which was probably a barn on the ground floor that was remodelled to look like a cellar with barrels hung from the walls. After a meal of cold cuts, followed by pappardelle with bolognaise sauce, and then grilled chicken and beef. Lots of wine was drunk and impromptu toasts made. Following the meal some people got into the dance groove with music playing outside and no one else for miles around.

Also, the farm's relatively new mascot, a six-month old shepherd dog named Martha was too cute to pass up for a pat on the head. Everyone had a good time!

Dancing the night (and calories) away!
Fattoria il Poggio
Via S. Piero, 39
+39 0583 22088

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