Tuscan Journal

Autumn in Tuscany: Vendemmia, Olive Harvest Zen and Off Season Bargains

If you are adverse to the tourists and heat of Italian high season, save your vacation for October or November. In the autumn, the sun is lower and softer and so are the people. It is a time for gathering and reflection, the final season before hibernating inside. On the streets of the medieval hill towns, the calm is palpable as the locals go about their business finishing the harvest, preparing for fall festivals and awaiting winter.
October will be rewarded with the beauty of the wine harvest or Vendemmia, where rows of beautiful ripe grapes hang off the colorful autumn vines waiting to be hand picked!

Those who wait for November will enjoy low prices and the tranquility of the olive harvest. Prices for lodging and rental cars are often close to half the high season price, bargains abound! You could even try being a WOOFer (Workers On Organic Farms) exchanging grape or olive picking for free room and board. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that!
The cooler weather requires a few more clothing options, but having the place to yourself is so worth it. Plus, now you can wear all those stylish scarfs that the Italian’s, yes, even men, don so stylishly.

For those who may like to try your hand at the harvesting olives, any farm would be  happy to have you help for a day or two. Not wanting to commit to anything back breaking, a friend let me help out for two days. The pay is perfect; the calming experience, a few cans of AMAZNG olive oil and two lovely lunches of hand rolled pasta by his mama, Dina. The meals were delicious but, even more rewarding is to be a in an Italian home eating, drinking wine and laughing with the family– poetry. I am always so grateful.
I love these opportunities to get close to nature and experience pure calm! Ekert Tolle would have been proud of my NOW attitude of attending to these age old tress with deliberate attention. Raking olives off a Tuscan tree is very Zen like. Just BEING with the olive trees in silence of that beautiful landscape is pure pleasure. A stark contrast from a busy city life and restless mind. Next year, set your sights on vacationing in the shoulder season and be rewarded with a calm reinvigorating vacation at bargain prices.

11/22/2013 12:43 am | Share | No Comments

DOLOMITES: Hut to hut, a hiking heaven!

I have to admit that as much as I am enamored by the beauty of Tuscany, the Dolomites have become my latest travel passion. Have you ever been on a trip that haunts you for weeks after returning? I just can’t stop thinking about it.

I had spent time in the Italian Dolomites during the snowy winter, but wanted to explore the hut (rifugio) system when the mountains were lush. I finally made arrangements to go on a girlfriends hut-to-hut trip this fall. We based out of Alta Badia, located in the Tirolean area of the Italian Alps. It’s valleys carry all the Alpine charm while possessing the allure of Italy! The Dolomites offer ALL the outdoor activities a mountain girl could ask for, from simple hiking to extreme mountaineering, mountain biking, and skiing.

The inhabitants of the area are referred to as the Ladin people. They are an ancient Roman mountain people, unique with their own language, Ladino and their own food and culture. Best of all, they possess a hybrid of Austria/German efficiency, heavily shaken with Italian passion. I have found my home!!

Our hosts for the hut-to-hut trip were the good people at The Holimites company. Hands down, these folks run the most organized, efficient and friendly company I have ever worked with in Italy. They provided a seamless, challenging, safe, fun and active vacation. We hiked approximately 15 kilometers or an average of 6 hours a day with a short lunch. Traversing the best trails of the Alta Via 1 and 2, all were well marked and each vista was more stunning than the last. I think these mountains have an ancient, craggy beauty, perhaps a combination of the beauty of Wyoming’s Teton range, Southern Utah’s walls/wilderness and the green rolling valleys of the Swiss Alps. No kidding, it was blow-your-socks-off grandeur around every corner!  Without a doubt, this should be on every hiker or climber’s bucket list.

The huts were varied in size, some with private rooms and others with group dorms. Single rooms are popular and often book out a year in advance. All huts were always charming, beautifully located, clean and almost always had delicious local cuisine.

Lagazoui Refugio

Lagazoui, pictured here, is balanced on the edge of the world and perched in the clouds. It is accessed only by cable car and high mountain trails. At sunset, the owner runs out, at just the right moment, to capture the clouds and light rolling past his family’s hut. Apparently he has quite a collection of photos from this incredible vista. Thanks to a sleeping aid, eye mask and earplugs, we braved the snoring intimacy of a 12 person dorm for that night. The beauty of Lagazoi was worth every inconvenience.

My photo of heaven in the clouds with our Holimites guides…Barbara, Susann, and Ricardo

The fall-2013 group was made up of friends and strangers from all over the world. The weather was an autumn variety of sun, rain and even some light snow, all  typical for September. We were all well prepared with the clothing recommended by the Holomites.  Our guides covered running, yoga, and hiking. Barbara, Susanna and Ricardo were all so helpful, professional, humorous, patient and kind. As a guide, I so appreciated their good nature and easy laughter. There was Susann, a petite, happy, energetic soul, who enticed our gals up the steep climbs with chocolate. Barbara had an inspiring athletic grace and humor. Ricardo led the fast group of runners with his confident stamina and encouraging attitude. They were all a delight to spend the week with!

Our Fall 2013 group: (Photo courtesy of Augusto Mia Battaglia Photography)

As I cannot stop thinking about the Dolomites, I plan on returning again next fall with a group of couples and friends. With my dual knee surgery behind me, I may even try to run a bit of the route next year. I was inspired by the runner’s trail-dancing skills and yoga adventure!

No matter the time of year, I see the Dolomites as a perfect stop over from Venice for the athletic set.  It’s a great three hour escape from Venice or the usual tourist stops. The Dolomites are amazing mountains that inspire athletic adventure!

If you are interested in arranging a family, friends, or couples group, with the best of Italy mixed in, feel free to contact me to discuss some possibilities.  Or, if you want to be a part of my FALL 2014 hike/run, laugh, eat-drink-and-be-merry group, feel free to contact me: info@customtuscany.com . You could even arrange to do an extra day on the via ferrata or mountain bike around the Sella Rounda group.

AAHHHH! THE DOLOMITES…..  A little slice of heaven. Where GOD vacations. Very nice indeed!

 

10/22/2013 05:27 pm | Share | No Comments

Rave reviews…. amazing clients!

Working in the travel industry has given me a great opportunity to meet many wonderful and interesting people. I am honored when I have touched someones life through my passion and knowledge of Italian travel, helping others plan their trip of a lifetime!  I feel a great responsibility in giving my clients as much detailed information and insiders tips to make their trip seamless.  After working together, sometimes for months, I feel as if they were like family and I aspire to make their experience the very best it can possible be.

The following are testimonials by a few clients. Some of them brief and others very detailed. These people confirm my love for this work. Perhaps all my efforts brings some happiness and joy into others lives, which gives me a great sense of purpose.

These clients were a lovely couple from Quebec, whom I really enjoyed creating a super, special luxury vacation for. This castle hotel in Tuscany is on my wish list! Upon receiving their customized itinerary, they sent me an email that said, “We are really excited… We have never traveled with this amount of organization. Sad that you do not do the rest of the world. Thank you, thank you, thank you”.  Very cool, this made me proud since this is from a top level CEO for a major corporation in Canada! Following their three weeks in Italy, they sent me this…..”Two thumbs way up Betsy. We really enjoyed our trip… well balanced… just perfect“.  So nice!

 

This is an amazing testimonial by another wonderful couple from Canada that I recently helped. They have since become friends!!! I am so happy that their month in Italy was everything they dreamed.

“In May 2012, my husband and I took our first trip to Italy.  In the beginning, I started planning the trip myself, but soon found it overwhelming especially since we would be gone for a month.  So many places to see, what to see, so many websites to look at for accommodations, so many tours to book in advance to avoid long lines, etc.  Luckily, while looking for a place in Tuscany, I came across the Custom Tuscany website.  I thought perhaps this site was worth looking at since it would “customize” our stay.   I clicked on the link and our lives changed forever because our trip turned out to be the best experience we have ever had!

Our goal in Tuscany was to enjoy the countryside and live amongst the locals to genuinely experience the Tuscan way of life as much as possible.  Thus Betsy Bothe arrived in my life and our journey from start to finish was unbelievable.  My husband and I cannot say enough about the experience of working with Betsy and about the itinerary she helped us achieve and the wonderful places we stayed.  Our trip for the entire month went off without a glitch.  Each apartment or B&B we booked turned out to be excellent choices as far as location, cleanliness and all hosts/hostesses going the extra mile to make our stay memorable and easy.  

Betsy has spent a lot of time in Italy and has friends all over this wonderful country.  We were extremely happy to hear that Tuscany is one of her favourite areas and wow, she arranged an incredible apartment in a medieval  hilltop town called Castelmuzio.  Betsy knew the owners very well and promised us we would love their genuine hospitality and love of their lands in the Val d’Orcia region.  We had the best week of lives there and hope to go back some day soon.

Upon arriving in the Tuscan area, again Betsy had a good relationship with a gentleman who met us at the train station with our rental car and maps.  At the end of the week, we returned to the same train station and the gentleman met us again and we handed over the keys.  Everything Betsy arranged for us happened with ease and simplicity. The value Betsy brought to our trip became evident when we chatted with another tourist who rented a car as well in Tuscany.  He mentioned he spent hours and money trying to find the rental company, get to it, return the car and make his way back to the train station.  With Betsy’s help, it was simple!  

We also visited Rome, Venice, Florence and the Almalfi Coast.  Our accommodations in all our destinations were wonderful. In every destination, logistically, we could not have had better always close to the main sites, transportation, restaurants, shopping, etc.   When it came to tours, such as the Vatican, Borghese Gallery, Academia, Uffizi Gallery, etc Betsy had prearranged all of these for us which eliminated waiting in long line ups.  The day we visit the Vatican, the line up was over 2.5 hours long.  But not for us, thanks to Betsy.  For every tour she booked, it was easy to find our way as Betsy always provided detailed travel tips, directions and name and contact number where ever possible.  

Transportation throughout Italy was also prearranged by Betsy.  Every train ticket was bought and again the whole train experience went wonderfully with no hiccups.  Betsy detailed the station we should be at in each of our destinations and what time we should be there prior to boarding the trains.  Train travel was the way to go throughout Italy.  We only rented a car in Tuscany.  

All of this planning took a number of weeks via email and Skype with Betsy.  In the end, two weeks before our trip, all our information arrived by courier at our home.  We are in Ottawa Canada and Betsy is in Utah, USA.  My husband and I were blown away by what we received.  For each destination, Betsy had prepared a soft covered binder with all the pertinent information and tour tickets inside. Our itinerary was in the front of each booklet, all color coded. The names, contact numbers, location, transportation to all our apartments, hotels and B&Bs was completely mapped out. In addition, Betsy recommend and included names of restaurants she frequents and other sites she felt we might enjoy.  She truly went out of her way to to make our trip memorable. We were truly amazed with the effort that Betsy put forth to ensure we had a fabulous trip.  

I could go on and on about this trip and thanks to Betsy how wonderful it was.  I have since recommended Betsy to some friends and they loved her service as well.   Betsy and I still talk via email and I hope to maintain a friendship with her for years to come.  I would love to travel with Betsy on one of her biking tours thru Tuscany some day.  She has invited me to join her some fall and go olive picking in Tuscany. This is on my bucket list!  

Lastly, many of us try to do way too much when we tour Europe.  Again thanks to Betsy’s knowledge of Italy, she helped us to slow down the pace so that we could truly enjoy the Italian way of life.  She left days open for enjoying outdoor cafes, drinking great wine, and just walking around at our leisure.  I hope this information is helpful in helping you decide whether or not to try Betsy’s expert services.  You can always start with a phone call.  Once you speak with her you will be hooked because of her friendly way and her knowledge of Italy.   Oh and one last thing, Betsy has a few cell phones from Italy that she loans out at no charge, which came in handy many times.

Thank you Betsy once again for the best trip ever.  We can never truly express our sincere gratitude to you.”  —Warmest regards and best wishes, Linda & David , Ottawa, Ontario Canada

THANK YOU CANADA! I have been very fortunate to work with you all and hope to come to Canada someday! ~Betsy

This fall a friend took her grown children and their significant others to Tuscany.  Some wanted to cycle, but all wanted to enjoy the wine, cuisine and culture. I tried to give them a balance of activities to please all. Below is her take on Tuscany and how she brought together many diverse opinions, but all enjoyed the beauty of the place… creating lasting memories for her family.

“Embarking on a journey with seven distinct characters is reserved for the adventurous.  Surrendering control, a good sense of humor, and an intrepid spirit must be part of the packing list. And, Betsy, of Custom Tuscany must be your first phone call.

Betsy embraces Tuscany; the language, the culture, the landscape, the people, the food, and the wine.  Her passion and exuberance is contagious.  We benefited greatly by tapping into her wealth of knowledge of so many areas of Tuscany.

Betsy met with us several times to determine our ideal trip and genuinely cared to plan an experience that would meet everyone’s desires.   She asked pertinent questions and was sensitive to the varying ages, abilities and interests of our group.

Her organized travel itinerary was both thorough and thoughtful. For each day we were there, she provided notes and maps according to the area we were to visit.  Her suggestions and contacts were well researched, reputable and knowledgeable.  

Tuscany is hardly a single vacation.  The area subtly lures you in and warmly envelops you.  We shall return.  Cycling more roads, savoring more cheese, tasting more wine. Tuscany beckons further exploration.  Betsy will be our first phone call. Grazie Mille, dear friend!

Again, I feel very lucky to help others create lasting memories. Tuscany is truly a special place that you and your loved ones will not soon forget. Let me know if I can help you create a custom itinerary for those you care most about in la bella Italia. Contact me at info@customtuscany.com

11/09/2012 11:52 pm | Share | No Comments

Torta di Mele- Italian Apple Cake


Autumn’s harvest of insanely delicious foods are my inspiration to get back into the kitchen.  Squash, pumpkin, apples, potatoes, garlic, carrots, peppers;  delicious colors in the paintbox from which to create. This month I have tried Italian roasted vegetable zuppa, apple torta and pumpkin risotto, yuuummmmm! Fall provides so many great opportunities to cook and celebrate together! If my family walks into the house while I’m cooking, they aaaahhh over the fragrance coming from the kitchen. I like to remind them that they are smelling mama’s love!

There is nothing like a bushel of crisp fall apples to bring out your inner pastry chef.
Our dear friends from Milano, Luigi and Amelia, make this wonderfully easy apple cake. On their last visit they whipped it up for us in no time. Luigi lovingly helped Amelia peel the apples and held the bowl as she carefully spooned it into the pan, a dance of loving creation and cooperation! Such sweetness… I love those two!

 

Here is Amelia’s simple recipe:

Torta Amelia
Torta di Mele (Apple Cake)

6 apples (any type- but tart green granny smith’s are my favorite)
1/2 lemon (juiced)
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 cup flour
1.5 teaspoon baking powder

*1 Oz of Sabucca liquor (licorice favor) can be added for a wonderful zing!

peel apples and slice into thin wedges
squeeze 1/2 lemon over apples to keep from going brown
beat eggs, sugar, milk
mix flour and baking powder – add dry to wet ingredients
mix in 1/2 the apples (reserving half for top)
pour into a 9 inch spring-form pan  (spray with canola oil spray /or grease with oil)
arrange the remaining apples in a circular flower pattern on top

bake 350 degrees for 40-50 min
watch for browning and turn as to not burn in oven hot spots
done when a toothpick is inserted into center and it comes back clean
lightly dust with powdered sugar

Yummy, healthy and so easy to look like a professional!
I found other more complicated Torta di mele recipes, but I came back to Amelia’s healthy and easier version. Torta di mela is great with a cup of coffee for breakfast or accompanied by a dollop of vanilla ice cream for dessert. Buon appetito e buon autunno!

10/20/2011 02:54 pm | Share | 1 Comment

Traveling with Kids and Teens in Rome and Tuscany!

Traveling with kids and teens in Italy is a natural combination. Pizza, pasta, gelato, beautiful cities and wonderfully welcoming people who adore children, what’s not to love!  If you you are traveling with a baby, you will be a big hit with the Italian locals, as children are treasured.

Last summer I planned a trip to Italy for some friends and their three teenage boys. I researched all things that would appeal to teens in Rome and Tuscany.

I came up with a few bike tours; one on cruiser bikes in the pedestrian area of Florence and one on Appia Anitica (Appian way) mountain biking over the ancient cobbles outside of Rome.

The boys got to be gladiators for day, learning from some of the trainers that coached the actors in the film, The Gladiator. They seem to love the Piazza Navonna and returned at the end of their trip to hear a fabulously funny old man lip sync to pop hits! 

Of course, with teen boys, you can not go wrong with a pool, some pigs on a farm and a torture museum. I loved that they loved uncle Giancarlo of Podere Spedalone in Tuscany (previous blog) and how the boys found respect for this man and helped out where they could (read dishes).

Their father, John, gives his account of their trip, traveling in Italy with teens and his experience with Custom Tuscany (Thanks John!)…His guest blog follows:

My wife and I had taken our 3 boys to Europe a couple of times before last summer. Somehow we had not yet made it to Italy though. So as the summer of 2010 was approaching Italy became our destination. Fortunately my wife had a good friend, Betsy Bothe of Custom Tuscany to turn to for advice.

After about 5 minutes of conversing with Betsy it became obvious that we would need her help. Traveling with our boys (14, 13, 11) we needed to find a balance between the educational aspects and the pure fun activities that we wanted.  Betsy knowledge of Italy over many years convinced us to have her plan a few days in Rome followed by a week in Tuscany.

The planning started with meetings between my wife and Betsy. My wife LOVES being a tourist, walking through churches, museums and such. The boys and I like ruins, biking and generally anything that keeps us moving.

A week or two before our departure I was invited to see the trip itinerary that Betsy had put together with my wife. I was truly amazed. The preparation that had gone into three binders was beyond what I had ever expected. We had pages of itineraries with flight details, train schedules, maps, contact phone numbers, etc. Talk about details, she even provided phone numbers to call in case we lost any credit cards we carried!!  We had photo copies of all of our identification, very detailed maps of biking trails in Tuscany that Betsy had ridden, as she and her husband are bike freaks. We had the name and  the cell number of the guide she had hired to give us a private tour of the Coliseum in Rome (highly recommended). Betsy had set up a private biking tour on the Appian Way in Rome with Roberto. Again highly recommended. She found a large private apartment in the perfect location in Rome, right near Spanish steps.

Arriving in Tuscany by train, we were met by her friend who was renting us a van for our stay there. Best yet, Betsy had found us the perfect place to stay in Tuscany. Let me start by saying that I hope to return to Tuscany. Perhaps many times. But as long as Giancarlo will have us, I will only stay at Podere Spedalone. Why? I am sure there are comparable places in this beautiful part of the world. However, I’ve never experienced the joy of becoming “family” while traveling.

A prettier setting you won’t find. Anyone considering staying there will have read up on the history, the grounds, the pool, etc. Betsy suggested that we eat at least one dinner with Giancarlo and proceeded to make reservations at a variety of local restaurants for most of our 7 night stay. She assured us that Giancarlo was an excellent chef and host. Arriving late the first afternoon we settled in for our first meal in Tuscany. On the back patio, looking west across the rolling hillside and the sunset beyond, we enjoyed cheeses and a concoction of sparkling wine and local fruit. The dinner inside that followed was interesting in that it was as good an Italian meal as I had probably ever had, yet was in such a warm and relaxed rustic setting.  My brain told me that I’d have to have been in some very expensive restaurant in Manhattan to find food like this, yet here I was in what felt like my Uncle Giancarlo’s private home. We had found our Tuscan home!

During the day we did our tourist activities, seeking out churches, biking to an organic farm and so much more. With the exception of one night, we ate all our dinners WITH Giancarlo. Simply because we could not have eaten better, felt more at home and been able to learn Italian history and culture from a true renaissance man. A bonus was that my boys got to help serve and cleanup and spend time with Giancarlo. It was interesting to see kids who generally don’t help out much around our house transform and consistently ask Giancarlo what they can do. Besides working in and around the meals, they loved slopping the hogs and even got to cut grass with a riding mower.

We knew we’d love Italy and we were not disappointed. We were very fortunate to have found Betsy and Custom Tuscany. The logistics of travel, lodging, transportation, meals, activities, in a foreign country are always hard. We are a family that likes to explore and be on our own. No conventional tours for us, we need more freedom to be flexible. Looking back on our trip, Betsy made a good trip to a great country just about perfect. Now we need to get Giancarlo to visit us to return the hospitality he showed us.

John H.
Utah

Don’t be afraid to travel with kids, especially in Italy. You will always cherish those memories with your entire family in such a special place. My daughter has been traveling in Italy since she was a baby, at dinner our Italian family would pass her around the table. She now loves all-things Italian and as a teen gourmand, savours excellent olive oil  and truffles on her pizza, but not the chocolate kind-hee!

To learn more about traveling in Italy with small children or teens contact Betsy at Custom Tuscany.

06/01/2011 05:08 am | Share | 1 Comment

Tuscan Culinary Artist and Farmer: Giancarlo Toso

Many Italian men that I know were schooled in their mama’s kitchen. Personally I bow down to any man that knows how to make a mean marinara sauce! One such culinary genius is Giancarlo Toso. Giancarlo (GC) is il contadino (the farmer) and proprietor of the Podere Spedalone, an agriturismo or farmhouse subdivided into charming Tuscan style apartments.

Giancarlo passionately embraces the Tuscan farmhouse and land in which he has restored and is one of those Renaissance men who does it all. (Me) “This jam is delicious!  (GC) “Oh, grazie, I made it with the berries that I cultivate in my garden.” (Me) “Of course you did! Before or after pressing the olives for your amazing extra virgin olive oil?

Rising at five am, Giancarlo finds has way through the darkness of the courtyard to his professional grade kitchen, ready to prepare the daily breakfast for his guests. The breakfast at Podere Spedalone is not your standard B & B fare. As a guest at Spedalone one can happily wake to the smell of fresh baked breads and pastries, along with a spread of homemade yogurts, cheeses and organic jams, all hand made with the organic fruits and or produced by animals raised on site, by who else, Giancarlo.


Podere Spedalone is a historic Tuscan farm, nestled amongst the rolling hills, in one of the most beautiful areas of the Crete Senesi. The farmhouse has a rich history dating back to 600 A.D., when it was originally a Roman settlement. Historical records also note that Spedalone served as a “Hospitalis Sancti Benedicti”- or rest stop, run by Benedictine monks for 13th century pilgrims traveling along the Francigena route from France to Rome.

Giancarlo has worked hard to preserve this history and has created a place of tranquility and authenticity for all those who visit from around the world. “ We continue our research everyday, driven by the conviction that Spedalone is hiding other secrets and treasure seeking to come to light and illuminate the trails of our past,” states Giancarlo.

In 2004, Giancarlo purchased Podere Spedalone in partial ruins. In the span of 2 short years, with the help of many skilled masons and the architectural talent of his 80 year old mother, Giancarlo and company completed the beautiful restoration of Podere Spedalone. Quite an achievement and such a beautiful memorial to his  mother who has since passed.

On any given evening one can enjoy the incredible sunsets at Spedalone with an aperativo of light finger food and bubbly drink. The fritatta is scrumptious and the pecorino (sheep’s cheese), paired with a prosecco cocktail that GC concocts is out of this world!

Aperativo is just the prelude to GC’s multi course gourmet cena- family style dinner, crafted from only the freshest ingredients, yummm! The menu may includes vegetables, lemons, kumquats and, of course, olives all grown on the property.  GC also raises his own fowl and pigs, some of which he cures himself, of course.

Our meal included multiple course offerings starting with bruschetta, followed by a  ravioli in a sage sauce, Cinghiali (wild boar) in a red wine sauce, excellent local wine selections, local cheeses, several after dinner drink options and three desserts. One dessert was a homemade gelato topped with a very sweet, very aged balsamic vinegar. I know strange combination, yet, believe me, it’s heavenly! GC’s wonderfully authentic Tuscan meals are unforgettable and thoughtfully plated in an artistic way.

When you are not eating, days at Speadalone can be spent close by just walking on one of the quiet trails, which abound with wildflowers and small lizards. When I stay, I can be found mountain biking the local dirt roads (strada bianca) which provide opportunities for exploring the spine of the Crete, with breathtaking views from every angle. These roads made me fall in love with this area so many years ago. Or, alternatively, spend a lazy afternoon perched by the pool and olive tree groves with a good book. I am content to just meditate on the patterns of the wind dancing through the mature wheat fields and the panoramic views of the beautiful Tuscan countryside. This place digs at my soul and makes me a better person!

In my husband, Bill’s, opinion, “ Stay at any other Tuscan agriturismo and you may get a beautiful room with a view, but stay at Spedalone and you get all that plus, Giancarlo’s passion for the land, history, cooking, agriculture and sensitivity to the many nuances of Toscana.” It will feel as though you gained an Italian zio (uncle) before you leave. Some of our friends stayed at Spedalone with their sons last summer. Never were three teen boys happier just following GC around the farm, feeding the pigs, exploring, playing in the pool, riding bikes, making pizza together and learning all the ins-and-outs of a farmer’s life and history of the area.

Visit Spedalone’s beauty and solitude in this unique slice of Tuscan heaven, but stay for Giancarlo’s warmth and generosity expressed through his gastronomic delights far beyond any marinara sauce. Such a find and such a fine man.

If you want to set up a few days (minimum 2 nights) or a week at Podere Spedalone, contact Giancarlo and tell him that Betsy from Custom Tuscany sent you. If you want to discover the area by bicycle or car, let Custom Tuscany help you set up an incredible, personalized itinerary for your perfect Tuscan vacation!

 

04/23/2011 04:18 am | Share | No Comments

Not just another Tuscan Tour Operator– Heather of the Garfagnana: Anthropologist of Aesthetics

 

This is a new section of my blog in which I highlight the many characters of Tuscany that I have had the great pleasure to befriend. I have drunk grappa and played gin rummy with a farmer, assisted wine makers with the bottling of Brunello, learned about the healing properties of honey from a beekeeper, enjoyed stories of a punk rocker/writer/artist and rolled pasta with a nonna who created heaven in her kitchen. These are all amazingly welcoming and passionate people, who have based their lives on their craft in the geographic area of Tuscany. Join me for a glimpse of their lives.

Heather of the Garfagnana:

Kindred spirits come along seldom, but you recognize them immediately when you agree with their very philosophy of life and deep connections with their down-to-earth-companions. Heather of the Garfagnana is one such kindred Tuscan spirit, who is actually a Brit. After spending a winter in a farmhouse near Lucca helping with the olive harvest, she fell in love with the artisans, food, culture and ancient rhythms of Northern Tuscan life, transforming herself into a local of the Garfagnana.

In contrast to the rolling, manicured landscape of Southern Tuscany, the Garfagnana is the dramatic mountainous region of Tuscany just north of Lucca. When you enter this area, you are transported back in time to the age of knights and princesses. Foggy valleys surround mediaeval hill towns perched on the steep mountainsides. Of her connection with the area she states, “I’d always been half in love with a romanticized storybook version of traditional rural life. Here I’m nose to nose with the daily reality. It’s part of almost everyone’s life — working in the woods, the water mill and the wood-fired bakery. From the butcher’s shop to the village bar, it beckons seductively from every doorway.”

Owner and operator of Sapori + Saperi Adventures, (Flavors + Knowledge) Heather Jarman conducts unique, personalized gastronomic adventures for her guests treating them to tours with her “secret” cheese makers, hidden restaurants, butchers, honey makers, specialty farmers and her amazing research providing an true insiders knowledge of rural and ancient traditions of the people who have lived in this area for thousands of years.

Her resume is amazing, relating in some way to eating, drinking and cooking her way throughout her career. As an archaeologist researching the early history of agriculture, Heather spent more time in Mediterranean markets and cooking for the excavators than in the trenches. While General Manager of the Academy of Ancient Music and Personal Manager of Christopher Hogwood, she researched and cooked sixteenth- to eighteenth-century feasts to suit the music performed at concerts. More interested in eating than publicity, Heather nevertheless did occasional programs on eighteenth-century cuisine for the BBC.

Coming full circle to her background, Heather is now an modern anthropologist of aesthetics, embracing the Slow Food Movement and searching out the very finest of artisans and purveyors of ancient edible traditions, which she intends to help keep alive.

Heather describes her unique travel adventures, “Sapori e Saperi Adventures are vacations for people who daydream about finding a shepherdess on a hillside with her flock and being transported to her cantina to watch her make pecorino cheese; people who can’t stare at a bottle of olive oil without wondering when and how the olives are picked, pressed and bottled; people who love to cook and eat. The adventures open locked doors to a brand new palette of exquisite flavors (sapori) and new skills and knowledge (saperi).”

Among some of her scrumptious offerings she has these upcoming tours:

Cheese + Bread + Honey
19-26 June 2011
15-25 June 2012
Pre-tour optional weekend in Lucca during monthly antique fair

Highlights include visits to artisan cheese makers, learning to make Garfagnana potato bread with village baker, cooking lessons, pizza party in Italian home, walks along ancient trails. Accommodation in secluded beautifully restored monastery with swimming pool in the Garfagnana.

Read more and download full itinerary: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/cbh.html

Cheese + Bread + Wine — An Adventure in Fermentation
4-18 September 2011
2-16 September 2012

Highlights include full day at Slow Food Cheese Bra; 12 wine-tasting experiences in Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont with sommeliers and vineyard owners; visits to 2 artisan cheesemakers including parmesan; learning to make Garfagnana potato bread with village baker; cooking lessons; 3 festivals including the spectacular Luminaria at Lucca. Accommodation in elegant 18th-century villa in Val d’Orcia, beautifully restored monastery in the Garfagnana and traditional farmhouse in the Langhe.

This tour is in collaboration with our friend Lucia from Viaggi Senza Fretta. More on Lucia and her philosophy in an upcoming blog.

Read more and download full itinerary: http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/cbw.html

You can contact Heather about these upcoming adventures directly at Sapori + Saperi Adventures. Mention that Betsy from Custom Tuscany sent you and receive a discount if you book a tour. Contact me if you would like to arrange a special day tour with Heather or any of the many Tuscan characters featured in my blog.

03/13/2011 02:32 am | Share | No Comments

Dai con Forza e Coraggio- Go with Strength & Courage!


I love winter! Maybe it’s because I have the great fortune to live in a ski town that allows me so many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and all it’s fabulous winter sports; alpine skiing, nordic skiing, sledding and snow shoeing. The powder here is heaven when we get an opportunity to carve some turns in that sweet, dry, fluffy stuff…. aaahhh, divine poetry! So why would I ever stray to another country to ski? Only for the charm, culture and ambiance my friends. Winter, Italian style, is a must do, as only the Italians can do winter so passionately.

Last month we visited the Italian Dolomites to participate in a 70 km classic nordic ski race: la gran fondo, the big daddy, the Marcialonga. My husband, Bill, is obsessed with this race and he has skied this Italian race many times, eight to be exact. This winter he finally convinced me to participate in this epic distance race through the Val di Fiemme and Val di Fasse.  Darn! I was so looking forward to spectating again, sporting a glass of vin brulee (hot spiced wine) at the finish line.

Being one of 7000 skiers is daunting, but the views of the Dolomite’s classic rocky spires (sasso) lit with the morning rays of sunshine as we skied down the river valley was awe inspiring. To be a part of the skiers in the Marcialonga is to be to be moving in synch with thousands of your fellow racers from many countries, only speaking the language of poling and striding in a dance through the mountains together. I felt a great weight of gratitude; to be in the beautiful Italian Dolomites, to be in love, to have a husband that believes in me so enormously and to have the fitness to be able to ski 70k ……Grazie Dio!

Yes, I finished, a slow but respectable 6 hours and 55 minutes later, certainly no land speed record. Still 43.4 miles affords a few bragging rights, non? Bill set a personal record in just under 4 hours… way to rock and roll husband! For me, it was more of an event than an actual race. I was inspired by all the people, gnarly 70-80 year old mountain goat men, two women singing Italian folks songs as they skied along and how about that blind skier that finished before me, my husband poked. “Yeah, yeah, I am sure he must have been Norwegian,” I gaffed.

An event, like no other I have ever experienced, millions of Euro are spent on this race yearly. No expense is spared; awesome food, music, huge screen video featuring televised helicopter coverage of the lead racers, an opening ceremony with fire dancers, folk dancers and area dignitaries. Every small town provides aid stations, music and enthusiastic volunteers cheering “Bravi!”  Post race there was an excellent pasta meal, free beer, a festival in the piazza of Cavalese with open cauldrons of hot vin brulee and a closing fire works display to commemorate the final skier finishing. Epic enthusiasm!

A few days before the race, as I started to stress about the impending race, I heard a man encourage his wife as she timidly skied down a small hill, “ Dai con forza e coraggio,” – “Go with strength and courage!.”  I remembered that phase and used it as my mantra for the 2011 Marcialonga. I will be back next year. I pledge a little less off the couch race training and perhaps I won’t be passed by so many 80 year old mountain goats and blind skiers. Dai con forza e coraggio amici!

I know it’s not Tuscany, but if you so much as ever have the desire to visit that area of the Italian Dolomites (near Bolzano), I would be happy to give you some advice on where to stay, ski, what to do and how to get around. Contact me: betsy@customtuscany.com

My Marcialonga Experience:

(Yes, that’s my crazy laughter at the end of the video!)

YouTube Preview Image
02/26/2011 03:47 am | Share | 7 Comments

Mumbai, Mashed Potatoes or Tuscan Truffles?

I know… we are full-on into winter now, and fall has fallen, but I must have a few last words on one important fall festival in Tuscany. Patience, I’ll get to it.

Here in the States, November and December are big eating months. Starting with Thanksgiving and ending with New Years, we certainly get our fill of standard holiday fare. Being married to a vegetarian, Thanksgiving has become a yearly source of angst. The debate (umm…. fight) started on the way to my sisters house. My husband, Bill, declared that Thanksgiving food offered him nothing but mashed potatoes and salad and he was, “sick, sick, sick of it!”  He declared that next year he intends to invite all of his vegetarian friends over for Indian food.  Not a patient woman I replied in a spicier way, but essentially, “No problemo amico, start working on perfecting your curry recipes, as I will not be hosting these vegetarian friends.”

Okay, I get it vegetarians.... this turkey does look quite obscene!

At dinner, after several glasses of wine, Bill announced to my family that he would not be attending anymore Thanksgiving celebrations, as he would be in Mumbai (he’s a pilot) and would be enjoying authentic Indian food in the motherland. My family toasted to Bill’s last Thanksgiving and we all laughed heartily, because what else do you do (beside drink heavily) when you are married to an eccentric?! Always high entertainment that guy, especially to the family and friends that rarely see him.

As for me, next year I will skip the Thanksgiving debate of mashed potatoes and Mumbai and instead head to the Tuscan truffle festival in San Giovanni D’Asso, a village outside of Siena. One of the smaller truffle festivals, it still remains one of the best. A hot bed for truffle hunting, San Giovanni D’Asso even boast it’s own truffle museum and a village festival that involves the entire community for a few weeks every November.

November and December are the prime months for fresh truffles (tartufo) and there’s nothing boring about that flavor. Truffles have a rich, musky, earthy, pungent and even sexy scent. Truffles are loved by food connoisseurs because of their strong scent, closely resembling pherhormones and are thought to possess aphrodisiac powers….YES, YESSS!

Delizioso is all I can say… I crave the flavor of a dish of homemade risotto drizzled in a pecorino sauce with shaved tartufo. This is about as close to heaven as it gets and a visit to the restaurant, La Porta in the hill town of Monticchiello will allow you that slice of culinary heaven. Ask the owner Daria (the goddess of wine and food) for that fabulous signature dish if it is in season. La Porta is an wonderful dining experience and I would be happy to help arrange a cooking class and wine pairing for your family or group.

To most people, truffles may resemble a potato like tuber or even a strange organic plant from a Hogwarts botany class, but the misshapen, wart like truffle is the equivalent of diamonds in culinary circles. Today prices depend upon the variety, but you can expect to pay approximately $140 per once for truffles. In 2007 a casino owner from Mancau paid a record breaking price of $330,000 for a 3.3 pound white truffle found outside of Pisa (obviously pre recession)!

The truffle hunt involves area truffle experts, trained dogs and a knowledge of the right tree roots and hiding grounds for the elusive tuber. More details on the truffle hunt and specialty dishes next year after my 2011 Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Tuscany. I am hoping my brother, who is a chef, will join me.

Oh fall, you may have fallen… BUT…. there is always next autumn in Tuscany and I plan on being there to enjoy the tartufo bianco, it’s fall festivals and many traditions surrounding this glorious food.

12/16/2010 04:42 am | Share | No Comments

Got Wine?

According to an article in Health.com daily wine consumption may help women to fend off forgetfulness (cognitive benefits), boost immunity, aid in preventing bone loss, lower the risk of ovarian cancer and may reduce insulin resistance associated with type two diabetes. Wow! Already of big fan of the medicinal grape, say no more, say no more. I’m in, as if I have ever needed an excuse for filling up a large goblet.  Understanding how it makes mommy a better person at the end of the day, I have never doubted an important benefit, (sigh) relaxing.

Wine has been a powerful elixir throughout history and current studies have linked very moderate wine (especially red) consumption with lower mortality rates related to cancer and heart disease.

So what is so special about wine?  Polyphenols, powerful antioxidants compounds which are found in abundance in red wine. It is believed that over sixty different chemically distinct flavonoids (plant based nutrients) are known to occur in red wine. Polyphenols are believed to increases HDL (good) cholesterol, which help to prevent blood clots and plaques formation in arteries.

A study in the September 2009 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research indicates that the polyphenols found in wine, particularly one called resveratrol may aid in the prevention of age-related disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases (alzheimer’s), inflammation (arthritis), diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

As far as it’s benefits in guarding against cancer, the study further states, “ Resveratrol exhibits therapeutic potential for cancer chemoprevention as well as cardioprotection. The simplest explanation is that resveratrol turns on the cell’s own survival pathways, preventing damage to individual cells. Further mechanisms help, including removing very reactive oxidants in the body and improving blood supply to cells. Low doses of resveratrol improve cell survival as a mechanism of cardio- and neuro-protection, while high doses increase cell death.”

Easy there!  Be careful in interpreting these studies as an excuse to polish off a daily bottle. Don’t forget that all important word, moderation. Wine in very moderate quantities, one glass a day for women and two for men, is the key to gaining these benefits. Over consumption causes degeneration of cells, especially in the organs.

The good news if you are not a wine drinker, polyphenols can be found in many other plant based source including; grapes, blueberries, cranberries, black berries, bananas and other foods such as green tea and chocolate. As for me….. got wine? Okay only one good glass (darn!). Salute!

11/23/2010 03:33 am | Share | 3 Comments