Eating Elsewhere: La Cucina Toscana | Bleader

Eating Elsewhere: La Cucina Toscana

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Pasta fatti en casa with butter, sage, and lemon at La Pulledraia
  • Pasta "fatta en casa" with butter, sage, and lemon at La Pulledraia

Italian cuisine is still very regional, with major differences across the country and even from one neighboring region (or even town) to the next. Although a tourist may be able to get tiramisu, a Venetian dessert, almost everywhere now, if you ask for saltimbocca (a Roman specialty) in Sicily, you'll most likely get an odd look.

Here's my guilty secret: I get tired of Roman cuisine pretty easily. Earthy, stick-to-your-ribs dishes like bucatini all' amatriciana and roast spring lamb (abbachio) are delicious, but they can be hard to face after a long day of trekking around the city under a hot sun.

Grapevines that resulted in hearty red wine served at dinner
  • Grapevines that resulted in hearty red wine served at dinner

So I was pretty happy to arrive in Tuscany, where the cuisine is even simpler, almost austere: white cannellini beans with rosemary, grilled steaks with olive oil and lemon. I'm staying at an agriturismo, a type of working farm that hosts guests to showcase regional cooking, in the Maremma area. This part of western Tuscany, right next to the Tyrrhenian Sea, is known more for its wildlife and cowboys, called butteri, than for Renaissance frescoes. The agriturismo, La Pulledraia, makes its own wine and grows its own fruit, and I saw a family of goats, a young cow, and a rooster on the premises. Bruno and Luciana Turco bought the place in 2002 after they retired and renovated it—previously she taught Latin and Greek and he worked for the southern province of Salerno in an office job. Now he runs the farm and she cooks for guests.

The result of hard work: wine from the vineyard and crostini
  • Wine from the vineyard and crostini

If you want, you can have dinner at the agriturismo. Meals are served family-style at a big table, and everyone chats as best they can in whatever languages they speak. Highlights included crostini with a variety of spreads (chicken liver, artichoke, peperoncino), homemade pasta with butter, sage, and just a hint of lemon—so much flavor out of such everyday ingredients—pork tenderloin stuffed with spinach and cheese, pasta e fagioli (giant tubes of pasta with beans), and a Maremma specialty, tasca piena ("full pocket"), a kind of meatloaf made with veal. Dessert ranged from incredibly sweet strawberries with sugar to chocolate panna cotta. Wine was a simple but tasty red, the agriturismo's own label.

After-dinner digestivi
  • After-dinner digestivi

After dinner we got to choose from an array of homemade digestivi, after-dinner liqueurs that are supposed to aid digestion. I finally got to sample nocino, a liqueur made from walnuts, which tasted like the essence of Tuscany in a glass—woodsy and intense. Another night I tried alloro, which thanks to the iPhone we figured out was laurel—green and herby. I only wish I'd stayed longer so I could try the fennel or artichoke.

An artichoke plant on the grounds of the agriturismo
  • An artichoke plant on the grounds of the agriturismo

More fruits were on display at breakfast, where an array of homemade jams was laid out to go with pecorino cheese or bread—giuggiolo, a type of date; cachi, or persimmon; as well as more familiar fruits like apricot, pear, and orange.

A mushroom almost as meaty as the steak
  • A mushroom almost as meaty as the steak

Even with such a grand dinner waiting for me at the end of the day, I couldn't resist lunch at Osteria dell'Orco in the tiny town of Alberese. It had a casual, almost hippie aura, with colorful African fabric pinned up on the patio and a blackboard menu written in different colors of chalk. The waitress suggested grilled porcini mushrooms and entrecote, both of which were grilled in a giant wood oven right there on the patio. Both were unbelievably flavorful—the mushrooms perfumed with garlic and mint and some fresh-squeezed lemon bringing out the sweetness of the meat. A bike ride through the Parco Naturale della Maremma helped me face yet another of Signora Luciana's giant meals that night.

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