Eataly, Florence, Food, Fresh made pasta, Italy 2014, Reflections, Sabbatical, Slow food movement, Tuscany

Exploring the Tuscan Countryside – Part 1: San Casciano – Fresh Pasta & the Slow Food Movement

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Ok, I have a confession to make. I love food! I love shopping for it, preparing it, cooking it. Most of all, I love savoring it. I LOVE to eat good, tasty, high quality food. I have found that in Italy in abundance. Fortunately I walk all the time, so I haven’t put on any weight. In fact, I’m getting a lot stronger. I live on a hill and access is through steps or a steep street. I walk, a lot! That said, my diet is full of fresh fruit and vegetables, a bit of beef and chicken, some pasta and some bread (less of each than you might expect). I also love organic raspberry jam. I mean I LOVE it! And fresh cheeses. I have no idea what kinds they are, but I LOVE them, older, harder cheeses and younger, softer cheeses. I don’t seem to be much of a fan of goat cheese here, but cheeses made of cows’ milk are heavenly. Oh, and I love Italian wines, especially reds, although I am warming up to whites made of vernaccia grapes, delicious, but little known outside of Italy at the moment. I foresee this changing quickly. I now know the differences between Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Super Tuscans (more on those later).

So, in my quest for food and drink, I took my first excursion into the Tuscan countryside on September 15, in honor of my sister Kathy’s birthday (which was the 14th) and because I thought it was time for an adventure outside the amazing city of Florence. With Grape Tours, I took this trip into the Tuscan countryside and I met all the people whose photos you see on their site: http://www.foodtourintuscany.com.

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Specifically we toured the chianti and vernaccia grape regions outside Florence. There were seven of us in our group guided by Kimberly, an Amsterdam native, who grew up in Chicago, IL and moved to Italy five years ago (although she spent 3 of those years in Singapore running a restaurant with her Italian husband). He now has a restaurant a bit farther South in Italy which I hope to visit. She is a sommelier. My traveling companions were a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary from Minnesota who now live in New Jersey, a couple from New York on their honeymoon, and a couple from England on an adventure, as well as your intrepid narrator.

It was an amazing adventure including fresh pasta making, a tour of a winery and olive oil press, lunch at an eco-agriculture farm that grows saffron (!!!) and has a delightful bed and breakfast, a visit to historic San Gimignano where we had free time to walk the ancient streets and sample gelato from the shop that has been named “Best gelato in the world” for 8 of the last 10 years (according to our guide), and a truffle hunt with amazing truffle dogs (I’m smitten!) in the forest. (Sadly, we didn’t find any truffles.)

I think the thing that impressed me the most was the commitment to the “Slow Food” movement and eating locally, organically, and healthily that everyone we saw supported. I, personally, wasn’t familiar with the “Slow Food” movement, so I asked a lot of questions. It seems to be about eating locally, a zero carbon footprint, organic, non-pesticide, non-GMO food, and taking the time to savor what you eat. I’m in! To learn more, there are a number of relevant articles here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/slow-food-movement/. A grocery store dedicated to the philosophy of healthy, local eating called Eataly was started in Italy . There are now 27 Eataly stores worldwide, 10 in Italy, including Florence, 13 in Japan, 1 in Dubai, 1 in Turkey, and 1 in Chicago and New York. Find out more here. http://www.eataly.com/global/. You can also purchase their products online through http://www.eataly.com/ which seems to fly in the face of the zero carbon footprint, eat locally philosophy they were built on, but there you go.

My next several blog posts will cover all I learned about these regions of Tuscany, wine and olive oil, organic food, saffron, and truffles. Today, I’ll talk about homemade pasta in San Casciano.

Homemade pasta in San Casciano – The first stop on our adventure was San Casciano, a hilltop village, 17.6 kilometers (10.9 miles) and a 27 minute drive (or 30 minute bus ride) from Florence. San Casciano was bombed repeatedly during WWII, so very little of the ancient architecture remains except small segments of the city wall. It is also Machiavelli’s birthplace and the site where he wrote The Prince after being exiled from Florence when the Medici family lost power in 1512.

We were here not for Machiavelli, but rather to observe a family run, from scratch, pasta shop that serves the region. Called Maccheroni e raviuoli (macaroni and ravioli), the shop is run by a mother, father, and son with one shop assistant.

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They make fresh pasta throughout the day by hand and with the support of small mixing, blending, cutting and stuffing machines. They are known for their tasty desserts (Mama’s speciality) and their ravioli and homemade sauces which are popular with restaurants and families throughout the region.

After a demonstration on preparing pasta dough, slicing various types of pasta, and setting a machine to stuff fresh ravioli, I purchased some “gnudi” (literally without clothes – nude). These are the stuffing inside ravioli made of buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan cheeses, eggs, nutmeg (the secret ingredient), and salt and pepper rolled into balls. You can add other finely cut ingredients like spinach, tomatoes, peppers, basil, sage, etc. as desired, but be careful of the moisture content. (These ingredients will likely sound familiar to anyone who makes stuffed pasta or lasagna.) To cook, you simply put the gnudi in boiling, lightly salted water until they float (just a couple minutes). After cooking them for dinner, I sprinkled mine with a bit of salt and pepper and they were delicious.

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I also purchased some of the ravioli we had watched being made. The pasta makers recommended that I hold it in the frig for a day or two before eating it as the flavor is “better, more mixed”. I’ll try that today! They recommended it with salt, pepper, butter and fresh sage. I picked up some fresh sage at the eco-agricultural saffron farm we visited later in the day (more on that in a later post). I’m to melt the butter in a pan, add chopped sage, saute for a moment, then add the pasta, mix it together and salt and pepper to taste. I’ll let you know!

As with gnudi, fresh pasta should be cooked only until it floats for a lovely al dente texture. Dried pasta takes longer because it is being rehydrated as it cooks (I’d never thought of that.). For regular pasta, fusilli, rigatoni, spaghetti, fettucine, etc., the pasta makers recommend 40% semolina flour, 60% farina (all purpose flour), and 5 eggs per kilo (2.2 pounds) of pasta dough. You will likely need to add a touch of water (less than 1/4 cup – add by tablespoons) to get it to the initial crumbly consistency you desire (30% humidity according to our host – I have no idea what 30% humidity is like, but did understand crumbly texture that binds together when you squeeze some in your hand). They don’t put salt in the pasta dough. You can add that to the water as you’re cooking. For stuffed pasta, you want a firmer dough so they recommend 50% semolina, 50% farina, and 7 eggs per kilo.  (Again, you will likely need to add a bit of water – up to ¼ cup to get the texture crumbly, but able to bind.) After cutting the pasta in desired shapes, they sprinkle the pasta with rice flour so that it doesn’t stick together.

Pasta tips: Fresh pasta is good in the frig for up to 5 days, stuffed pasta for 3. Fresh, dried pasta is best within 7 days. You can, of course, also freeze fresh pasta.

In my next post, we’ll discuss wine and olive oil. Caio!

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