Poggio Antico

Wednesday, 18 ottobre 2006

After an early breakfast and a spectacular sunrise, we all got on a rented bus to go to a biodynamic farm, Poggio Antico, and then to San Gimignano for a much anticipated field trip.

This day was bittersweet for me – my excitement about riding through the hills of Tuscany and seeing all the beautiful landscapes turned to horror when I became extremely carsick after only reaching the end of the road from Spannocchia. I could not look out the windows and struggled for a little over an hour not to get sick on my favorite jacket on the bus. I don’t remember ever being so sick in a situation that I could not stop and get out. It was sheer hell and I was doubly miserable because I was missing all the beautiful scenes of Tuscany that I was hearing discussed around me. All I could do was sweat and focus on not throwing up.

THAT was what I forgot to buy in Firenze. Dramamine. Again.

The bus driver was very unhappy about driving on the “white roads” and Charlie and Debby were in constant negotiation with him. “Next time you rent jeep!” he said over his shoulder as we hit a section like a washboard.

I stumbled off the bus at Poggio Antico green to the gills, but I made it through. Then I had to deal with it again on the way to San Gimignano, but this time it was not so long a ride and I sat in the front seat.

Poggio Antico was a lovely farm community. A lot of different foods are produced at Poggio Antico and you could buy many of their products on site. We went into a barn where dairy cows were, for various reasons, inside, and Roberto explained their philosophy, which I will not try to explain here because biodynamic agriculture is very complicated. I’ll just say that biodynamic farmers have particular methods and additives that they use to raise the vitality of the soil, and they are very attuned to nature.

Roberto told us about the process of growing, harvesting, and pressing the olives into oil in their modern frantoio (olive mill). Afterwards, we went into the farm’s store and bought olive oil, pasta, and other products to take back with us. Charlie and Debby bought a variety of cheeses for our picnic, which we tasted along with fresh fruit and salad. A big treat for Sandy and me was a bottle of raw milk that we shared, with just a little for one of the farm cats. Sandy was bowled over by the freshness and taste and so was I. But I grew up drinking raw milk – he had never tasted it. Hopefully we will get a chance to buy this legally in the coming year. Although it is illegal to sell raw milk in most U.S. states, including North Carolina, it is not illegal to drink milk from your own cow, and we may get a chance to buy a cow share from a local farmer.

To be continued…


Piggies – fantasy and reality, wild and domestic

Tuesday, 17 ottobre 2006

After that incredible lunch, we had a little bit of time to relax. Sandino played chess with Charlie, and I spent some quiet time in il giardino segreto (the secret garden) with a book, my notebook, and camera. I didn’t go far, since I was trying to heal my foot before our big road trip to Poggio Antico andSan Gimignano the next day. But I found some interesting fiber sculptures just off the trail.

Later that afternoon, the class took a tour of the Cinta Senese pigs, an heritage breed making a comeback at Spannocchia. The Cinta Senese are perfectly adapted to the woodlands of Spannocchia, where they are raised with care in fenced areas. The little piggies above are only one week old.

The tour concluded with a visit to a basement storage room where prosciutto hangs to cure, and a tasting of the different items that are produced from the farm’s pork. I heartily support and applaud small livestock farmers who produce their own meat with love and care, but I have a hard time meeting the animals that I eat. Plus I just recently began eating pork again after years of not eating it for a variety of reasons. Even though we didn’t meet the specific animals that we ate, it was psychologically difficult. But I tried all of it, and enjoyed the salume the most. We ate these again on pizza night and on Friday, when we had lunch outside in the courtyard.

Coincidentally, there was an opinion piece in the NYT today, Cure Me, about the sad inflexibility of the USDA in prohibiting the sale of traditionally cured meat in this country. This is why I can’t find locally-produced ham or bacon that is traditionally cured without nitrates. The USDA is not interested in putting more effort into monitoring food production or inspecting meat for safety, and they make decisions based on what is best for big agribusiness, not for consumers or independent farmers. When I was growing up I remember when my godfather, Mr. Wade, brought us a cured ham, which we hung in our unheated utility room. You have to cure it yourself or have connections to get this kind of good food in the U.S. now.

My photos from the dinner that night did not come out, but here’s the menu for the record:
Primo – Risotto con spinaci (risotto with spinach)
Secondo – Arrosto (literally, roasted meat; specifically, veal with mushrooms)
Contorno – Porri (baked leeks – so good!)
Insalata (salad – radicchio)
Dolce – Dolce alla Frutta Fresca (literally – sweet with fresh fruit)

To be continued…


Making Ravioli with Loredana

Tuesday, 17 ottobre 2006

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a short paper that I wrote about the history and culture of pasta in Italy. Part of the project was learning to make my own fresh pasta, so I documented this part of our cooking class with Loredana in great detail! (Thank you, Teresa, who filled in as photographer while I mixed and kneaded dough.)

After these photos is the second part of my paper, in which I wrote about my first foray into pasta-making at home.

With the flour, make a mound with a hole in the center then put the other ingredients into the hole.


then knead, into a ball for at least 10 minutes.

(Loredana combines all our little balls and kneads.)

Cover the dough with a damp towel.

Divide into several pieces, and then put the pieces through the pasta maker several times.

When the pasta is thin enough, lay out in strips and add a small spoonful of filling every 3 inches or so. Make sure you leave space between the filling to cut into individual ravioli.

Fold over the pasta to close it,

then press down around the filling with a tiny cup to seal the pasta closed.

Cut individual ravioli apart.

(We all pitch in making the ravioli and put the finished ones on a towel as we work.)

When all are ready, dump them into boiling water for just a few minutes, or until cooked. You may need to do two batches so that they don’t stick together.

After draining them, immediately add butter and sage sauce and serve.

(Put it on a plate and gobble it up!)

Ravioli di Spinaci e Ricotta con burro e salvia
(Stuffed Spinach Ravioli with Butter and Sage Sauce)
6 servings

6 eggs
600 grams of flour (roughly ¾ lb. or 2 ½ cups)
3 spoonfuls of oil
A pinch of salt

With the flour, make a mound with a hole in the center then put the other ingredients into the hole. Mix, then knead, into a ball for at least 10 minutes.

Divide into several pieces, and then put the pieces through the pasta maker several times (you can also roll it out with a rolling pin). When the pasta is thin enough, lay out in strips and add a small spoonful of filling every 3 inches or so. Make sure you leave space between the filling to cut into individual ravioli. Fold over the pasta to close it, then press down around the filling with a tiny cup to seal the pasta closed. Cut individual ravioli apart. When all are ready, dump them into boiling water for just a few minutes, or until cooked. You may need to do two batches so that they don’t stick together. After draining them, immediately add butter and sage sauce and serve.

Ravioli Filling
2-3 cups of cooked spinach
2 ½ cups ricotta
1 egg
3 spoonfuls of grated parmesan cheese
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Mix all together. Salt and pepper to taste.


¾ stick of butter
8-10 sage leaves

Melt butter, add several sage leaves. Heat until melted, at which time it is ready to serve over ravioli.

Upon arriving at home, I decided to try two different pasta dishes. We returned to a cold snap in North Carolina, and the rest of my basil needed to be harvested. I had most of the equipment I needed, but I decided to invest in a pasta machine and a mezzaluna, a rounded knife with two handles that is ideal for chopping herbs and garlic.

I had found in our lesson with Loredana that the making of pasta is really not that difficult. As Elizabeth David points out, traditional Italian food often requires long preparation and short cooking times. Italian cooks often do not give exact measurements of ingredients; assuming that we should be able to judge how much a spoonful or a teacupful should be. The first question about measurements I ran into occurred at the very beginning of my solo pasta adventure – Loredana’s recipe called for 6 eggs, 2 ½ cups of flour, 3 spoonfuls of oil, and salt. My eggs were extra-large, and other recipes I had for pasta called for approximately one egg per cup of flour. I decided to use three extra-large eggs, and when the dough seemed much drier than the dough we had made in Spannocchia, I added another splash of oil. At that point it was impossible to add another egg. It was very stiff dough, but it all came out just fine. But should I decide to make stuffed pasta, I will add more egg.

After following Loredana’s instructions, I sliced off sections and ran it through the pasta machine on successively smaller settings, until the dough was silky thin. Later when I cooked the pasta I found the lowest setting to be too delicate for my tastes, and will probably make it a bit thicker in the future. Part of the dough I left in wide strips to be used in a lasagne for our meals over the next few days, and part of the dough I ran through the fettucine attachment. I draped these over a rack under a damp dishtowel as I worked.

The following recipes are copied from La Cucina di Spannocchia, a cookbook published by the Spannocchia Foundation. My changes or additions are in brackets.

[Cook fresh tagliatelle in boiling water until al dente (2-3 minutes, tops). Top with pesto:]

“2-3 cups fresh basil leaves
¼ c pine nuts
¼ cup parmigiano, grated
[1 large clove garlic]
Extra virgin olive oil

“Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree till smooth, adding oil to achieve the desired consistency. [I chopped everything together on a cutting board with a mezzaluna.] Taste for salt, adding if necessary. Toss with linguini, spaghetti, or orecchiette, add a couple tablespoons of butter and additional cheese, and serve. Or freeze in containers to use later, when the peppery taste of basil will bring summertime to your winter table!”
(Cucina, 28)


Lasagna sheets
Ragù sauce (recipe follows)
Besciamella sauce (recipe follows)
Grated parmigiano

“Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente, toss with olive oil to prevent sticking. Place a thin layer of ragu in the bottom of a large baking dish. Lay the lasagna noodles on top, cutting the ends to fit the pan. Layer the ragu and besciamella, sprinkle a generous layer of parmigiano, and continue until the pan is full. Bake at 375 until bubbly at edges.”

Ragù [divided in half makes plenty for a pan of lasagna]

1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic
2 tbls tomato paste
½ cup red wine
½ cup or more olive oil
2 tbls parsley [I used basil]
2 lbs finely ground meat: pancetta, pork, veal, beef, sausage: a combination of meats makes a more complex sauce
8 cups crushed tomatoes [I used home-canned chopped tomatoes]
Salt and pepper

“Saute meat in a large pot until browned, remove the meat and set aside. Finely mince the first four ingredients in a food processor [I used a mezzaluna], sauté in olive oil over medium heat until soft but not browned, about 15 minutes. Add tomato paste and sauté for 5 minutes, return meats to pan and deglaze with red wine. Add parsley [basil] and tomatoes and allow to cook over a low heat for several hours, being careful not to burn. Season with salt and fresh ground pepper.”

Besciamella (béchamel) [Again, I divided this in half]

4 tbls butter
4 tbls flour
4 cups milk, heated
Salt and pepper
Ground nutmeg

“Melt butter on a medium heat, add the flour, stiffing constantly until flour is absorbed. This forms a roux and should be allowed to gently cook for a few minutes to allow the flour taste to cook out. As a white sauce, besciamella requires a light roux, so be careful not to brown.

“Add the hot milk slowly, whisking in to dissolve any lumps that may form. Add a good amount of salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Continue whisking over medium heat, adding milk if too thick, until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. It should be relatively thick yet pourable.”
(Cucina, 29-31)

To be continued…


Cooking with Loredana

Tuesday, 17 ottobre 2006

After our tour of the kitchen gardens with Carmen, we entered la cucina di Spannocchia (the kitchen of Spannocchia) for our cooking lesson with Loredana. We would be preparing lunch for everyone that day.

Sandino surprised everyone, especially his wife, who barely recognized him. He leapt forward at every opportunity to be a part of every class activity! I guess it was too much to hope that his newfound passion for cooking would follow him home, but that’s okay. I’m happy to have my own kitchen to myself.

The main dish was a rolled turkey breast, butterflied and stuffed with an omelet and a spinach mixture. Loredana tied up the turkey breasts and baked them with some sage leaves and garlic in the pan, while green beans simmered with a mixture of parsley and garlic that Sandino chopped up with a mezzaluna. I remember seeing Carmen walk up the orto stairs with a bucket of these the previous afternoon. The finished product at the table is on the right.

Appetizers included baked pancetta wrapped prunes and slices of cheese drizzled with Spannocchia honey. Daniela, guest services manager and Loredana’s interpreter, slices pancetta (Italian bacon) from the farm’s own Cinta Senese pigs at the left. These were simple, beautiful, and so very, very tasty!

These were served out on the terrace where the weather was perfect. The other half of the class had been on work detail and they were hungry! Daniela opened a couple of bottles of Prosecco and we thoroughly enjoyed our break before going back in to work on the primo piatto (first course), ravioli di spinaci e ricotta con burro e salvia (stuffed spinach ravioli with butter and sage sauce). Because that was a big operation and the subject of my class project, I made a separate post about the ravioli with step-by-step photos and a recipe.

Debby, one of our instructors and tour guides while we were at Spannocchia, and Judy, one of our lively classmates, enjoy prosecco on the terrace.

The making of the tiramisu actually came first that morning, because it needed a few hours to chill. Sandino separated eggs for this dish, and did a better job than I did! Here Sandino uses the Michael Jordan technique for layering the bowls.

I never cared much for tiramisu before this day. That could be because I never tasted authentic tiramisu before this day. I’m still looking for a source of Pavesi ladyfingers here in Greensboro. Once I find the right ingredients, you might want to consider asking us to your potluck. Reactions to the tiramisu were pretty good, I’d say.

Karl-Heinz was shooting for the tiramisu record.

For your own safety, please do not get between Lizzie and the tiramisu.

To be continued…


Carmen’s domain

Tuesday, 17 ottobre 2006

On Tuesday morning, after a customary breakfast of bread, jam, yogurt, granola, hard-boiled eggs, juice, and some kick-ass coffee, half the class went out to work in various areas on the farm, and our half toured the kitchen gardens with Carmen, the orto (kitchen garden) manager. As you might guess, the orto was my very favorite place at Spannocchia, full of flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit, cats, and compost. I would love to spend a week just painting, drawing, and taking photos in the orto. Carmen was a fountain of information, and although her English was not perfect (close!), it was lovely listening to her speak it. I enjoyed hearing the Italian words for certain plants, such as dragoncello (tarragon). There were some vegetables that were local to the area, such as a large melon and a long squash that looked like a butternut, and a beautiful variety of kale.

One of the autumn vegetables growing in the orto that is seldom heard of over here is cardoon. The stems are eaten, and they wrap the stems in brown paper to blanch them at Spannocchia. Cardoon is closely related to the artichoke and is another member of the thistle family. It is a striking plant and well worth growing even if you never plan to eat it.

I loved the flowers, and the little building where she hung onions and peppers to dry, and even the compost piles were layered very attractively. There was a persimmon tree close to yielding its sweet goodness, and we munched on fennel bulbs as we meandered between the rows. A peep into the henhouse caused a chicken to hurry away from her eggs. The chickens have a large fenced enclosure in a fruit tree orchard, where they behave chickeny to their hearts’ content and retreat into the safety of their coop in the evening. The other students on work detail would create a large compost pile from the hog waste up the mountain in that chicken yard a little later, and fence them into a smaller space around it. (Sandy B called this the montagna di merda.) It definitely made the chickens happy, if not the creators of it!

The upper gardens behind the tower mainly produced cole crops amid silvery olive trees and artichokes. All gardens were fenced or walled to keep out the wild animals, which are in abundance at Spannocchia. We ate radicchio for our insalata (salad) course often throughout the week.

I wish that I had brought a tape recorder for this walk. Carmen’s voice was musical and she answered a lot of questions that I no longer remember.


The ruins of Santa Lucia

The history of the estate dates back to the 12th century, when a group of monks settled at Santa Lucia, an hermitage located on the banks of the Rosia river at the base of what is now the Spannocchia property. – from

Monday, 16 ottobre 2006

We set off at 5 p.m. for Santa Lucia. The trail was rocky and beautiful.

You can see the next door neighbor’s house from here.

He’s such a liberal.

Move it, move it, move it!

Stopping briefly for chestnuts along the way.

It was kind of spooky and wet approaching it from the back. The trail became treacherously steep and then muddy from a spring.

From the front. You could see where wild boars had been digging around a nearby tree – very, very, very recently!

I couldn’t decide if my husband was brave or foolish when he climbed to the third floor. We can all agree that I am chicken. Lizzie joined us and climbed up there with him, but I took photos of her with her camera.

Sandy took a photo of me below in the midst of the beautiful wildflowers. Alas, my close-up shots of the native flora did not come out well.

Detail of wall at Santa Lucia. They don’t make walls like they used to, um, about 900 years ago.

At this point, I thought that I would surely die before I made it up the extremely steep incline. Lizzie’s in great shape, though.

Lizzie saw a deer leap over the trail on the way back. I was about to freak out because the sun was going down and I was afraid to navigate the rough rocky trail in the dark. I’ve been caught on a trail in the dark before, and there was the matter of my aching foot and low energy level. But we made it back just before the sun dipped behind the Tuscan hills, to drink and eat heartily with the rest of the Spannocchians!

To be continued…


The tour of Spannocchia

Monday, 16 ottobre 2006

After breakfast, the class went on a historical tour with Randall Stratton, one of the owners of Spannocchia. He explained about the mezzadria system that the farm (and many others like it) operated under for hundreds of years. Under that system, sharecroppers lived and worked on the land for one half of the harvest, and the owner received the other half. When the Green Revolution came to Italy in the 1960s, what took decades in the United States to accomplish happened very swiftly in Italy – the dismantlement of the mezzadria system sent small farmers, tenants, and their children to the cities to find jobs, while large farmers shifted their efforts to the valleys where the arable land was easier to cultivate for cash crops. The Cinelli family had to find a way to continue or sell. They sold part of the estate, and designated part of the estate as a bioreserve.

From the introduction to La Cucina di Spannochia, their self-published cookbook:

In the midst of the wooded hills to the south of the medieval city of Siena in Tuscany, lies the agricultural estate of Spannocchia. Home to the Cinelli family for the last 80 years and the Spannocchi family for the preceding 800 years or more, the estate now offers, in its role as educational and research center for the Spannocchia Foundation, an unusual combination of cultural activity, traditional farming and culinary activity based on a history of many centuries. Visitors to Spannocchia have an opportunity to learn how different life can be when it is so closely tied to the land and the flow of the changing seasons.

Spannocchia enjoys the products of large vegetable gardens, olive groves, two vineyards, fruit orchards, chestnut and walnut trees, fields of wheat, barley, and farro, and the raising of heritage breeds of pigs, sheep, and beef cattle. The woods and fields of the estate further provide a wide variety of wild edibles, including fruits, nuts, berries, mushrooms, and even truffles. There is something wonderful about deciding what to have for dinner by what is ready in the garden, or has just been gathered in the woods.

The joy of living off the land is very much a part of everyday life at Spannocchia.

(Sigh. When can I go back?)

Anyway, when Randall was not being upstaged by one of the farm dogs, who rolled in the gravel courtyard and grunted loudly every time he spoke, he told us about the architectural history of the estate. The tower was the first building, built in the early 1200s, and it was added on to over and over up until the 1930s, at which point the appearance of the place was frozen in time. They have made lots of infrastructural changes at great expense, such as wiring, plumbing, heating, and ecological and energy efficiency improvements.

You can read more about the history of Spannocchia at the Spannochia Foundation site.

Randall took us through the building, through the cozy library, and through the largely unused little chapel. He told us family stories and local legends, such as a miracle spring that San Bernardino created, and the little stone angel that flew to the top of the chapel. Then we went up, up, up to the top of the tower, where the views were amazing.

to be continued…



Monday, 16 ottobre 2006

After taking in the stunning views at the top of the tower, we had a vegetarian lunch that included the traditional Tuscan panzanella, a salad made with leftover bread, and a green salad.

I was happy to have some time to roam on my own and write a little in my journal, and Sandino took a nap. We were both still adjusting to the new time zone a bit. I explored the orto (kitchen garden) and made friends with a few of the cats, but the kittens were wild and would have none of me. There were four dogs of different breeds but the same color, and one of them had puppies.

At 3:30 we arrived late for our Italian lesson with Guilio, and he helped a lot with specific phrases needed for ordering food and asking for service. Would have been nice to have had this lesson before our weekend in Firenze! One of the main things he clarified was the use of the word “prego.” Most people interpret it as “You’re welcome,” but it means more than that. It also means “May I help you?” and “I have served you.” So there is a service component to the word.

After the Italian lesson, Randall Stratton came back and showed us the little Etruscan Museum and workshop in the former carriage house, where we looked at some Etruscan and Roman artifacts they had excavated nearby.

Sandy and I had some energy so we decided to hike down to the 12th century monastery ruins of Santa Lucia. But that’s for the next post.

Dinner that night:
Zuppa di ceci e riso (soup with chickpeas and rice) – much better than it looks! I had seconds.
Polpettone – an Italian meat loaf
Zucca al Forno – This simple squash dish was amazing. It looked somewhat like yellow squash, but it was a local variety of squash that looked like a long butternut squash.
Torta della Nonna

I drank more wine than normal because of a hurting foot and a desire to knock myself out for the night, forgetting that I had class after dinner! I still made sense though, and although I got thirsty in the middle of the night, I didn’t get a headache. Didn’t help my sleep problems at all. Oh well!

Mama Dawg

Little Alpha Dawg

Vorpal kitty under a fig tree

Friendly guardian of the tile pile

To be continued…