Wine, olive oil, truffles and rustic Tuscan cooking – Sound tasty? These are just a few of the foodie experiences you can enjoy in Italy at the Toscana Resort Castelfalfi.
You may recall, back in November, I spent four packed days exploring the Castelfalfi resort in Tuscany, Italy. When I wasn’t tromping through building sites and exploring the restoration of the castle and village, the kind folks at Castelfalfi kept me busy doing things I love to do, namely exploring regional food traditions.
There are deeply ingrained food customs all over Europe, but nowhere more so than Tuscany. Castelfalfi encourages its guests to dive into the cuisine and culture with a variety of unique activities. The following seven were my favourite (mostly) foodie activities at Castelfalfi:
1. Wine Tasting
As I mentioned in my last post about Castelfalfi, a vital part of the project was recovering the vineyards and olive groves around the resort. In fact, when discussing Castelfalfi’s wine and olive oil, with CEO, Stefan Neuhaus, his eyes lit up and he spoke passionately about the project. It’s evident the agricultural heritage of the area is close to his heart.
At the moment, Castelfalfi produces three red wines, and who better to taste them with than Il Rosmarino’s chef, Francesco Ferretti, and manager, Elisa Franzini?
We began with the Rosso Toscano IGT, a combination of San Giovese and Merlot grapes. From there we moved to the richer Chianti DOCG, which combines the same grape varieties, but is aged in the bottle longer. The third and final wine, the Rosso Toscano IGT Poggionero, is the star of Castelfalfi’s wines and my favourite. It is rich, spicy and bold, and pairs perfectly with the game meats abundant in the region.
Tenuta di Castelfalfi produces only 8000 bottles of each type of wine. You can purchase them at the resort and, of course, pair them with the delicious meals in the restaurant. You can also arrange a tour of the vineyards with Castelfalfi’s agronomist, Marco Soldani, to learn more about wine production in the region.
2. Olive Oil Pressing and Tasting
Castelfalfi’s other main agricultural activity is olive oil production. There are 8000 olive trees, of different varieties, and you can taste their bounty at Il Rosmarino. Fresh, crusty bread, dunked in Tenuta di Castelfalfi’s extra virgin olive oil is the perfect start to any meal.
But, even though I cook with it daily, I knew little about producing olive oil and how to select the best one. I was lucky enough to be present, at Castelfalfi, for a tasting by an olive oil expert.
Tasting olive oil is similar to tasting wine, in that you engage all of your senses. However, with olive oil there are much stricter criteria. The first oil I tasted seemed fine, at first, if a bit bland. When I tasted the second, Tenuta di Castelfalfi’s extra virgin, the difference was clear. It was vibrant, spicy and intense. What a difference!
In addition to tasting, we also learned how to properly store and care for our oils, and which types to use for particular purposes. Of course, we had to pair those beautiful oils with food too.
Even more fascinating was my first trip to an olive oil press. This was one of the resort’s major investments in the community and, when I visited, several local olive growers were waiting for their turn at the press.
Olives at Castelfalfi are cold pressed between two giant millstones, which reduces them to a paste. The smell is amazing! The liquid is strained from the solids and then a centrifuge separates the oil from any excess water. Then, voila! You have olive oil.
Except at Castelfalfi, it’s not quite so simple. In order to attain the ‘extra virgin’ designation the press uses ‘cold extraction.’ This means the oil is carefully maintained under 27-28°C. All of the olives at Castelfalfi are handpicked, to keep them intact. They must be pressed within 12 hours of harvesting, to become ‘premium extra virgin.’ Now that’s harvesting under pressure!
Tasting the oil as it trickled out the end of the press, the difference was clear. It’s incredibly spicy, rich and intense. No wonder Tuscans still take a spoonful of olive oil as a tonic!
3. Truffle Hunting
Hunting for truffles has been high on my foodie experience bucket list for years and Castelfalfi made it happen. White truffles are a Tuscan delicacy and fetch extremely high prices on the international market. The reason for the truffle’s high price is its inability to be farmed. The only way to harvest truffles is to go out and find them where they like to grow.
Fortunately, truffles love the rich clay soil around the Castelfalfi estate. That’s how I ended up bumping along a pot-holed road in a tiny car with Castelfali’s PR Manager. We were in hot pursuit of the resort’s gamekeeper, Giovanni Gallerini, and his uncle, an expert truffle hunter.
Our truffle experts had brought along one tool, vital to finding truffles and I’m not talking about the shovel.
The Lagotto Romagnolo dog has mostly replaced pigs as the top truffle hunter in the area, because it has no interest in eating the harvest.
We stopped in a wooded area, behind the golf course, and clambered down the steep, muddy creek banks, in pursuit of our truffle-detecting canine. It wasn’t long before we were all digging.
It was incredible to watch the relationship between the truffle-hunter and his dog, as they worked together to uncover a handful of bounty. This was definitely one of the highlights of my visit.
4. Tuscan Cooking Class
The other highlight of my Castelfalfi stay was getting in the kitchen with chef, Francesco Ferretti, for a lesson in Tuscan cooking. Chef Ferretti graciously opened Il Rosmarino’s kitchen and shared the secrets of three of their dishes.
First up was Pappa Al Pomodoro, Tuscan bread and tomato soup. This rustic soup was traditionally made to use up stale bread, and tomatoes. Dressed up with a variety of fresh, local, herbs, it’s extremely colourful while it bubbles away in the pan. It’s also super easy to make! I’ll definitely be making this at home this winter.
Our second course was Spezzatino Di Cinghiale, wild boar stewed in red wine. Like the soup, this stew began with the trifecta of celery, carrots, and onions and capitalises on local herbs. The wild boar is rich and only slightly gamey; closer to beef in taste than pork. In fact, Chef Ferretti told me you can replace the boar with beef or lamb. The whole thing is stewed in red wine – you can guess where it comes from. Our stew received a hearty drink of my favourite Castelfalfi Poggionero.
For dessert, I learned how to make Cantucci, almond biscuits, which date from the 16th century. I can see why this recipe has stood the test of time. They are perfect with coffee or traditional, vin santo, an after dinner wine particular to the region. (I’ve already made a batch at home, since my lesson!)
Of course, the best part of my cooking class was eating it all for lunch once it was ready!
5. Eating with Game Hunters
Speaking of lunch, I took part in a very special one, during my stay at Castelfalfi. This is the one activity on my list, not normally open to the general public, but I had to share it. The Castelfalfi estate includes over 350 hectares of woodland. Game hunting is an age-old tradition here and, every weekend, the hunters gather for a feast in their clubhouse.
If you want to see and taste truly traditional dishes, this is where to find them, all cooked by one man on a tiny stovetop. Crowded at a table of more than a dozen hunters, all shouting, laughing and feeding me things, it was an experience I’ll never forget.
I have no doubt they were teasing the ‘journalista’ in Italian (and there were a few jokes my guide laughingly refused to translate) but the feeling of camaraderie and timelessness was extremely special.
6. Horseback Riding
When I found out Castelfalfi offered horseback riding, through the nearby Il Gelsomino Ranch, I jumped at the chance. On the day I was set to have my ride, I was more hesitant. The rain had been lashing down throughout my stay, and despite frequent sunny interludes, the ground was incredibly wet and muddy. It was uncertain whether a cross-country trail-ride would be possible for safety reasons. In the end, the skies cleared again and we decided to go ahead.
I haven’t been on a horse for many, many years. So I was relieved the ranch specialises in Western style riding. In fact, the American West memorabilia looked a bit out of place in rural Tuscany, but at least I felt at home in the saddle.
My guides were excellent and patient with my inexperience. Unfortunately, we did have to cut our ride short, when the storm clouds rolled over again. We made it back to the ranch just as the heavens opened.
I’d love to show you photos of the stunning landscapes we rode through, but honestly, I was too busy trying not to fall off my horse, slip on the soft, muddy ground, or let my horse enjoy the buffet of greens he wanted to nibble. You’ll just have to take my word for it – it was wonderful.
7. Photographing the Tuscan Landscape
While my photographic excursion wasn’t an organised activity during my visit to Castelfalfi, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention photography as a highlight of my stay. The landscapes around the resort are stunning – exactly the stereotypical image of Tuscany we all have.
Off in the distance, you can catch glimpses of the mountains, while in the foreground are the rolling hills, dotted with farms and villages. The light and colours are constantly changing and there is always a new scene at which to aim the camera.
While these seven activities were the highlights of my trip to Castelfalfi, there are many more to discover (I only had four days after all!) Swimming in the resort’s pool complex, golfing the world-class course, hiking or cycling the estate’s 75 miles of trails, or using Castelfalfi as a base to explore other towns in Tuscany, are just a few of the ways you can pass your time here.
Of course, you could just relax, eat, drink, and enjoy a quiet, Tuscan vacation. The choice is yours at Castelfalfi.
I spent 4 days at Castelfalfi, as a guest of the resort. However, all opinions are, as always, entirely my own. I would like to thank Cecilia Sandroni and the rest of the Castelfalfi staff for their warm hospitality during my stay.
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