The crickets had been singing a boisterous melody throughout the day, their chorus was in response to the increasingly hot temperatures. As the evening approached they seemed to soothe themselves by performing a more enchanting song; as if setting the stage for a much-anticipated Cena (dinner) at our neighbors Penny and James.
The neighbors Casale (farmhouse) is a brief walk away and yet a memorable one; with San Gusme and Montebenichi sitting in the convenient distance, encircling us with a sphere of Tuscan beauty. San Gusme is surrounded by rows of vineyards and olive groves, while Montebenichi has a flourishing Bosco (forest) at its feet. I could hear the wild deer (Roe) beginning to “bark” as the sun was starting its nightly decent.
We had received an invitation from Penny and James to join them for a Festa (feast) prepared by Marta; a local chef and proprietor of Marta‘s Tuscany Cooking (www.martascookingclasses.com).
The occasion was to celebrate the arrival of our new neighbor Cathy, also an individual who had fallen under the magical spell of Tuscany and the beauty of the Villa Di Arceno estate. This was an opportunity for us to share an evening over a traditional Tuscan meal and a foolproof way to initiate Cathy deeper into “La Dolce Vita” (the sweet life).
None of us had participated in any of Marta’s cooking classes nor sampled any of the Tuscan Cibo (food) she could also provide in the comfort of your Casale. Needless to say; we were eagerly looking forward to this new experience.
Shortly after my husband and I had arrived, I sauntered into the Cucina (kitchen) admittedly the heart of any Tuscan home. I seemed to be drawn “in” by the aroma of garlic and fresh herbs wafting through the air.
I found Marta and her assistant preparing our upcoming meal in Penny’s very cleverly laid out kitchen. I felt as though I had walked backstage into a brilliant play starring the “cuisine of Tuscany.“
Marta looked up and bestowed a warm broad smile; proudly showing me the ravioli she “just made” (appena fatto). The homemade pasta was so delicate and soft looking, like small pillows lying on the baking sheet.
I watched Marta as she moved deliberately and expertly around the kitchen. It was apparent she was in her element and genuinely enjoying preparing the meal for us to share.
As the evening progressed, Marta began to recount a few stories about the fresh ingredients, the food preparation and her love of cooking. Her enormous oval eyes widening as she emphasized specific points; her warmth and sincerity shining through.
Marta revealed she prepared the Tuscan meal using traditional, authentic and age-old recipes her Aunt Nara had shared with her.
The ingredients she was using tonight were sourced from the surrounding lands; grown by Tuscan farmers who were known to produce the highest-quality vegetables and meats.
Her admiration for her Aunt Nara was apparent, as she relayed that her Aunt had taught her how to cook. “My Aunt Nara is both precious and an inspiration to me,” her brochure reads.
Aunt Nara lives in San Gusme where I frequently visit for a delicious Cafe Americano con latte cauldo at Il Covo Di Nina.
Marta’s Aunt Nara can be seen walking through San Gusme; wearing a colorful dress and acknowledging those she meets with a quick smile and a strong “Buongiorno“(good morning).
Initially, Marta served us a mixture of bruschetta while we sat on the terrace; the iconic Tuscan countryside sitting in the background.
The pane (bread) was “traditional bread,” Marta said; “without salt and is wood-fired”, anointed with the smooth picante, extra virgin olive oil from the 2017 Villa Montecchio olive harvest. The grilled bread was topped with fresh and locally grown garlic, sweet tomatoes and freshly picked porcini (piglet) mushrooms.
I recall Sergio (the Contadino of Villa Montecchio) revealing the outdoor wood-burning oven in his village ” can bake 18 loaves of bread at one time” while he recounted the recipe to my husband (to translate to me). Unsalted bread remains a staple in Tuscany.
Pan di sudore, miglior sapore. (Bread that comes out of sweat, tastes better.) – Italian proverb.
As we moved inside; the table was set with white linens and fine white crockery; Marta had wrapped the parchment paper menus with twill, and placed a fresh piece of rosmarino (rosemary) from the garden inside. Rosemary grows abundantly around Villa Montecchio and the wonderful scent from this versatile herb filled the air.
Next Marta served her much-anticipated homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, with a light butter and sage sauce.
“I hope you like them,” Marta said and we did; the ravioli was cooked to perfection. The flavourful bundles were so fresh, they literally cut like soft butter.
Following the ravioli and sampling of local wine, the pork fillets wrapped with prosciutto and sage followed. The gradoli beans cooked in a fiasco (flask) were to accompany the maiale (pork).
Marta ensured that we understood the beans were cooked “the traditional way, the ancient way”; as she stood at the table with a flask in hand telling us about this process which dates back to the 16th century.
The globular fiasco with uncooked beans is nestled in coals and ashes in the fireplace overnight, the glass flask is then uncorked and the slightly firm, cooked beans are released from the glass flask in the morning. This process requires the ashes/coals to be kept hot and if not cooked correctly, the flask could explode sending beans flying over the floors. Perhaps a lesson from Marta may be required for this side dish?
The freshly cooked beans were also served with Villa Montecchio extra virgin olive oil. They were delicious.
Then Marta carried the Panna Cotta served with fresh berries to the table, as Marta placed one in front of me she asked: “does the desert look fine?” I replied, “it moves just like I do, with a bit of a jiggle” and we both laughed…it was perfect; creamy, firm and delicious.
The evening moved through its natural rhythm; filled with lively conversation, beautifully prepared food and delicious red and white wines. Our hosts and their two canines Gaja and Bruno entertained us as the warmth of the Tuscan air surrounded us.
Our wine glasses were raised; acknowledging Cathy’s arrival, the wonderful meal prepared by Marta and our thoughtful hosts. It was a special evening shared with friends.
Chi mangia sulo s’affoga (He who eats alone suffocates) – Italian proverb
We look forward to seeing Marta again!